I am going to preface this review by admitting something a little embarrassing and unprofessional: I cried during The Glass Castle. Like, kind of a lot? Not as much as I cry during Wall-E (which is softly, throughout the entire film, every single time I see it — that fucking robot is just heartbreakingly adorable and I physically can’t handle it). But I certainly cried enough to make writing this review harder. Because clearly the movie worked on me, and that kinda pisses me off. It’s an obvious and messy film, and it ends in a too-neat bow, and I wanted it to be better than it was.
But still, I cried.
The thing about The Glass Castle is that it’s about a dysfunctional, toxic, fucked-up family. And by the end, you sort of feel like the movie itself is a member of that family. It gets so wrapped up in denial and forgiveness and its own pain and beauty that you just want to shake it. Even saying “I wanted it to be better than it was” kind of proves the point. We all want our parents and our childhoods to be better than they were. But they are what they are. So — I cried.
But to be clear, no matter how imperfect your parents were, you’d have a hard time topping the upbringing of Jeannette Walls. The film is based on her memoir of the same name, which has been a New York Times bestseller for over six years. I haven’t read the book, but the movie does make me curious to check it out — partially because the screening I saw ended with a special post-credits interview with Walls. Normally I’d say that the film should stand on its own and be judged thusly, but hearing her speak put a number of things into perspective for me. She talked about what it felt like to see Woody Harrelson so completely embody her father Rex, or the love that Naomi Watts brought to playing her mother Rose Mary. But she also talked about how the process of writing the book, and of seeing her story adapted by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12), who co-wrote and directed The Glass Castle, helped her to forgive herself.
Please believe me when I say that of all the people that need forgiveness in this story, she isn’t one.
The Glass Castle tells the story of Jeannette’s upbringing with her nomadic, negligent, bohemian parents, and intercuts it with her adult years working as a gossip columnist in New York City (where she is played by Brie Larson in a bit of a Short Term 12 reunion). In her younger years, her parents would drive Jeannette and her siblings all over the Southwest in a variety of dilapidated cars stuffed full of their earthly belongings. They would squat in empty houses and occasionally camp out in the desert under the stars. They’d move on whenever the police or the debt collectors started closing in. The kids didn’t attend school — or rather, they were students of Life and The World. And listening to Rex pontificate about how much there is to learn just by looking and living, it’s easy to start nodding along and fall into the cult of his personality. To be fair, his drinking problems aren’t as apparent in the early scenes. The same can’t be said for Rose Mary, who is lovely but incapable of caring for her children as much as she cares about her artistic expression. This is driven home almost from the start, when Rose Mary sits at her easel and tells a hungry Jeannette to cook her own lunch — because lunch is fleeting, but art lasts forever. So Jeannette prepares a pot of hot dogs for herself and her mother… and she suffers severe burns as her shirt catches fire. Scars that will be with her for the rest of her life.
The film is littered with moments like that. Moments that will make you gasp at what these kids had to endure. All the children getting packed into the back of a moving truck with the family’s belongings. Two girls, a boy, and their newborn sister, riding together in the suffocating dark, surrounded by objects that could fall on them, while their parents sat together in the cab. Rex attempting to teach Jeannette to swim in a public pool by repeatedly throwing her into the water, watching her sink and struggle. The camera follows the girl, gasping above the water and panicking below it. And it follows her to the parking lot as Rex praises her for figuring out how to swim.
And then the film shows the family’s passion and love and adventurous, nonconformist spirit. The titular glass castle that Rex spends his whole life planning to build (he only gets part of a foundation dug, mostly through his children’s toil, and that ends up becoming the family trash heap). The way Rex lets his kids pick a star in the sky as their gift one Christmas, or calls to them like howling wolves, or the way he teaches a frightened Jeannette not to be scared of the demon hiding in the dark. Even the way the family comes together to steal Jeannette out of the hospital, where she is recovering from her burns, is both impressive and frustrating. Impressive in their ingenuity and how they make a clean getaway without paying their bill, but also frustrating because Jeannette clearly needed more medical attention. You almost think she’s fine as the caper goes down and Rex runs out with her in his arms, and it isn’t until later, when Rex removes the bandages by the light of a campfire, that you see just how burned the girl really is.
Eventually the family runs out of options, and they decide to settle down in a shack in the West Virginia mining town where Rex grew up. Here the film starts to offer glimpses of the forces that made Rex who he is, and seems like it might become a tale of generations of dysfunction and the way they pile onto each other. Rex clearly does not want to go home to his family, and particularly to his cruel mother — who has some very disturbing interactions with Jeannette’s siblings. It’s enough to raise questions about Rex’s own childhood experiences, though Rex refuses to address the issue when Jeannette tries to ask him. And the film, like the memoir, is limited to Jeannette’s experiences, so whatever happened to Rex in his youth remains his own untold story.
The films continually drags itself back to Jeannette as an adult, and her life with her boring financial advisor fiancé (played by Max Greenfield) in New York City. She sees her parents dumpster diving while in a cab, and eventually reconnects with them. The tension in these scenes is forced, because it essentially involves whether Jeannette is satisfied in her fancy new life, and what role her parents can have in her world. You want to take her side, as Rex demeans her fiancé and tells her to her face that she’s unhappy… but in the end even she sort of sides with him.
What the film successfully captures is the way we can love people who are unworthy, or only intermittently worthy, of our adoration. The way people are all imperfect, and parents especially so, and growing up means recognizing those imperfections. Parents can love you and still not take care of you. They may kick their addictions for you, and they may take them up again in spite of you. And then they may surprise you just when you need them most.
And you can love parents even when they don’t feed you, or they fight, or they steal from you. You can resent them for the same thing. And eventually, you’ll have to reconcile the two emotions. Loving and resenting are not mutually exclusive, and if you’re lucky you’re able to accept all of it. To forgive, without forgetting. To let go of the parents, and just know the people.
But remember what Jeannette said: that this was about forgiving herself. And that is the problem with the end of the film. We sit through all of the whiplash-inducing ups and downs of this crazy family, and the big resolution sells it all short for a happy ending. Not an “everybody is fine” ending, but an ending that chooses to focus on the positive above all else. Jeannette learns to appreciate the things that made her who she is, and forgive herself for walking out on her father. At one point, she literally starts crying over a Thanksgiving turkey because she feels so lucky. I don’t want to take away from the power of the beautiful memories, because those moments are powerful. But the shit she went through was also real, and also powerful. And in trying to force some sort of arc or resolution on this real-life narrative, the film boxes itself into a corner. The journey was about how life is everything, the good and bad and crazy and the messy — but acceptance doesn’t mean embracing only the good and ignoring everything else.
In the end, I was rooting for this messy, imperfect film, precisely because it was messy and imperfect. It knew how to let the good be good, and let the bad be fucking awful, and let the two coexist. And in doing so, it captured something real about families and growing up. Something real enough that yeah — I cried. Because c’mon, haven’t we all loved someone who hurt us, at one time or another?
But then it cops out by elevating the happy memories while sweeping aside the terrible ones — or worse, laughing them off. And that is just a shame, because the performances, from Larson and Harrelson and Watts through to the children portraying the siblings through the years, are incredible. They sold every memory, from the warmest to the most embarrassing and painful. You see the passion that the parents have for each other, and for the kids. The awful charisma of Rex and the helpless simplicity of Rose Mary. You cringe at their weakness and disappointment and poor judgement. And you believe these kids as they go from unquestioning adoration to realizing they need to protect each other and just get out. It’s a shame all that work is just thrown out the window by a pat ending that denies the nuance of everything that came before it.