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Film Review: The Glass Castle

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The Glass Castle is based on Jeannette Walls’ best-selling memoir of the same name, published in 2005 and recounting the unconventional, nomadic, and impoverished upbringing she, along with her three siblings, experienced in the care of their dangerously dysfunctional parents.

Cretton’s feature film adaptation thrusts viewers right into the depths of the tale’s core: an uncomfortable and precarious balance of whimsical and loving family dynamics, against dark and disturbing undercurrents, that will manifest explosively. Rose Mary, Jeannette’s mother, finds her artistic expression to be her greatest and only priority, resulting in a harrowing accident as the child, starving, attempts to cook for herself, only to be rushed to hospital with third degree burns.

This scene is used to introduce the family and their condition, but then sets the sequence played out to upbeat music and disconcertingly comic energy. It both introduces the childlike wonder our protagonist feels for her father in particular, and the growing sense of what can only be described as her abuse at the hands of one she so reveres.

At its core it’s a character study, a family portrait anchored by its father-daughter relationship. It’s perspective on it, through Jeannette’s eyes, shifts from her worshipping, child self through to her adult, disillusioned self.

In this, the film tears itself forward and backwards in time, shifting between the 1960s, during which the family tears across America to escape bill collectors or lawmen, and which deals with devastating topics of addiction, child molestation and extreme poverty, and the 1980s during which Jeannette lives as a successful gossip columnist in New York City, with her boring banker fiancé.

Through time, Jeannette comes to view her father differently, discovering what ‘normality’ entailed and gradually coming to understand that the ‘Glass Castle’ Rex repeatedly promises, is but a fantasy that will never come to fruition.

This is done through what aspects of Rex’s character are most emphasised in each stage of her life: when she was young, she sees him as a brilliant philosopher, one who can see through society’s corrupt construction and glimpse existence at its purest. As the film evolves, illusions are stripped away to reveal his cruelty, and fundamentally rotten and selfish core, two opposed sides of a man which Jeannette must reconcile.

Much of The Glass Castle’s triumph is owed to the fantastic casting involved. As always Brie Larson, portraying Walls from late teenagehood onward, simply shines in a role so complex yet never overplayed. The child actors are too, phenomenal to witness, whilst Woody Harrelson plays Rex flawlessly in his charm, sporadic outbursts of fatherly love, self-loathing and vulnerability, and tyrannous menace. Naomi Watts fascinates as a woman who’s both victim and an agent of abuse, gentle and self-interested.

The nonintrusive camera work throughout serves to withhold judgement of the situation, both on the part of the viewer and the director, which is difficult when dealing with such distressing issues. It’s a reminder that in retelling her story, Walls is undertaking a healing process, rather than reliving it rawly.

It rapidly becomes apparent that the film’s weakness is also its greatest strength. For all of Jeannette Walls’ candour, it becomes perceptible that she is still attempting to protect her father’s memory, and protecting a constructed view of what her childhood has taught her, and made her. The documentary material at the credits reaffirms this, that Walls will never quite be detached from her the way she saw her father, as a child.

It’s a contradiction by design, not attempting to simplify a complicated landscape for the sake of storytelling. The tone never clicks, and that’s because it’s understood that it’s yet to click with Jeannette, too, as contradictions continue to battle beneath the surface. It’s a captivating character study turned back in on itself.

The Glass Castle is out now, distributed through Lionsgate.

 

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