An erratic, charismatic father spellbinds his four young children with visions of a house --- "castle" --- made of all glass, heated by solar panels. He dubs it the "Glass Castle" and insists he will build it --- someday. In Jeannette Walls' emotional, heartbreaking and unforgettable memoir, "The Glass Castle", we learn that that day never comes.
Based on Walls' immensely popular bestseller, director Destin Daniel Cretton, who co-wrote the screenplay with Andrew Lanham, finally brings "The Glass Castle" to the screen with a marvelous cast and a script worthy of Walls' approval.
The film, as opposed to the book, begins with Jeannette (Brie Larson) as the successful gossip columnist she becomes in New York City in her twenties. She is engaged to David (Max Greenfield), a wealthy financier raised in New York, and who has no idea how Jeannette survived her outlandish childhood. .He makes up stories about her father, Rex (Woody Harrelson), to cover for her impoverished upbringing.
But Jeannette cannot escape the truth of her past, which becomes even more apparent when she espies her mother, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), and Rex dumpster diving in an alley in New York on her way home in a cab. She had left them and her younger brother, Brian (Josh Caras) and sister, Maureen (young Maureen, Shree Crooks) behind in Welch, West Virginia, and escaped to New York to join her older sister, Lori (Sadie Sink).
Now here her parents are --- in all of their horribleness --- squatting in an empty tenement building in the city, going through the trash to survive. Rose Mary and Rex think nothing of their situation. They have always chosen the unorthodox over the mainstream way of living --- and raising their children. For Rose Mary, her art always came before any thought of feeding her brood, and Rex, a chain-smoker and raging alcoholic, was a dreamer, not a doer, except if he was cheating someone at poker or pool.
I read "The Glass Castle" just a couple of years ago, though it was published in 2005. The reality of these four children was so appalling --- to the point of unbelievability --- that I questioned the sanity of making this story into a movie.
Cretton and Lanham have focused more on the resiliency of the family, and their unconditional love, than the hardships they faced. This is not to say they dilute the intensity of this family's squalid lifestyle, but, as is typical, Walls' account goes into much greater detail.
As I stated, the actors are well chosen, and perform with great devotion. Larson spent a lot of time with Walls and her dedication to this strong, determined character is apparent. It's amazing that these four siblings survived such an ordeal, and yet they grew up to become thriving adults retaining that strong bond.
Watts and Harrelson depict Rose Mary and Rex with great abandon. Rose Mary comes across as certifiably insane in the book, but Watts humanizes her just a tad. This is a role made for Harrelson. and though he gets a little carried away at times, he's the perfect choice for this crazy, obsessive father who strives to keep his family together.
A film which revolves a great deal around young --- and younger --- children must have exemplary child actors. Chandler Head plays the very little Jeannette, and Ella Anderson portrays a good chunk of the movie as the younger Jeannette to the adult Walls. Both girls are simply enchanting --- possessing acting chops well beyond their years. Watching Head tearfully exposing her scarred belly to Rex is heartbreaking.
I have written about Anderson before. She was seriously the only good actor in "Mother's Day" (2016) and a hoot in "The Boss" (2016). This young lady has already established herself, with a lot more to come, I'm sure.
While I don't love "The Glass Castle" as much as I admired the book, it is a solid adaptation of Walls' memoir. Wildly popular books mostly take a beating when made into films. Such a shame, but "The Glass Castle" is better than most.
Opinion: See It Now!
After seeing the screen adaptation of Jeannette Walls' best-selling book, "The Glass Castle", it is no mystery why the book spent seven years on the best seller list, was translated into 22 languages, and sold 2.7 million copies. I did not read it (Jeanne did), but the movie is a powerful emotional roller coaster about how love can have a firm grip on even the most dysfunctional families. In the case of this family, dysfunctional means living for months, even years, as sometime squatters in often abandoned, run-down dwellings, without proper plumbing or electricity, and going hungry for days.
Rex Walls was a dreamer who never really tried to make those dreams come true. But he instilled in his children, especially second daughter, Jeannette, the courage to stand up for themselves and be strong in the face of adversity. He was also an irrational human being whose alcoholic binges frightened his kids, compelling them to leave home when the opportunity presented itself. Walls was loud, explosive, unpredictable and frightening. He could also be charming, thoughtful and sympathetic, all the while loving his wife and kids. Woody Harrelson captures all the idiosyncrasies of this complex individual --- it's an extraordinary performance.
I never thought a Woody Harrelson portrayal would make me cry, but I was wrong. As Rex, the complicated patriarch of the Walls clan, which included three girls and a boy, Harrelson delivers what has to be his best acting in an illustrious career. Already nominated for two Academy Awards, I believe Woody has a chance to earn a Best Actor nod for "The Glass Castle". It's early, but it should be interesting.
The four Walls children are portrayed at three different ages. Oscar winner Brie Larson ("Room") plays the older Jeannette, the daughter closest to her father, and the one whose adult-life decisions conflict with Rex the most. Larson immerses herself completely in this role, rendering another incredibly heart-breaking turn in "The Glass Castle".
Playing Jeannette as a nine-year-old is Ella Anderson, appearing incredibly wise beyond her years. What Jacob Tremblay did for "Room", Anderson accomplishes for "The Glass Castle". Her reaction to her father's technique of teaching her to swim --- he removes her death grip from the poolside wall to repeatedly throw her into the water to fend for herself as she goes under --- is gut-wrenching. Equally stunning are her pleas to Rex to stop drinking.
This 12-year-old wonder already has an amazing presence on screen. When she chastises her mean grandmother (Robin Bartlett) for smacking brother Brian (Charlie Shotwell) at the dinner table, there is no doubt about her moxie.
Double Oscar nominee Naomi Watts plays Rose Mary Walls, Jeannette's artist mother. Early on we know where her mother's priorities lie as she would rather keep painting than make dinner for her family. In one intense scene, she plays the guilt game to force youngest Jeannette (Chandler Head) to boil hot dogs, with disastrous results. Yet we know she still loves her kids above all, and is devoted to Rex despite his unorthodox philosophy --- to put it mildly --- of how to raise a family. Watts proves her reliability as an actress in yet another memorable role.
Rounding out the main cast is Max Greenfield as Jeannette's fiance, David. Rex and David are like oil and water, and a night of drinking, leading to a tense arm-wrestling match, does nothing to smooth their relationship.
I'm a glutton for well-written, superbly acted dramas and "The Glass Castle" is one of the better films of 2017. Director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton received huge accolades from the people who matter the most ---- his cast, and Jeannette Walls herself.
Despite the subject matter, and the often abhorrent conditions under which the Walls children find themselves, "The Glass Castle" is an uplifting cinema experience. At the very end of the closing credits, there is a dedication which says it all, and I paraphrase --- to all the families, despite their scars, who find a way to love.
Opinion: See It Now!