Jeanette Wells’ bestselling 2005 memoir The Glass Castle has been transformed into an equally harrowing film, starring Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts as Rex and Rose Wells-a young American couple spending life on the road with their four children: Lori, Brian, Maureen and Jeanette. At first glance, the two parents and their cute, red-headed children are an embodiment of life without worries but a quick scratch beneath the surface reveals their almost disturbing reality. The family is headed by alcoholic father/husband, Rex, whose addiction not only makes him volatile but often takes precedence over the children’s need for food and stability. His inability to maintain a steady stream of income results in the family being constantly on the move, which is often explained to the children under the guise of a new adventure.
As with the book, the film’s focus is on middle child Jeanette and her relationship with her father. She reluctantly stitches his shoulder one night with a needle and thread after one of his boozy benders and he gives Jeanette her first swimming lesson, albeit horribly. She is his support system and at times he is hers. Their beautiful yet complicated relationship is explored all throughout the film’s non-linear narrative which follows Jeanette from childhood to adulthood and back again several times. Ella Anderson, who plays Jeanette during her pre-teen years, is absolutely outstanding. Both she and Woody Harrelson steal the show. Together, they portray the strength and fragility of father-daughter relationships.
‘Things are gonna be different this time round’, Rex tells himself. He only says this once during the film but his actions reflect this so much it’s his mantra. It’s hard not to believe him though, even after your watch the family move again and again, packing up their life like a deck of cards. Harrelson’s character is beautifully complex. He doesn’t fall into a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ category. He can be horrid but then funny. Cruel but then kind. You can’t hate him but equally he makes it hard to love him. As always, when required, Harrelson effortlessly taps into his character’s darkness , knowing exactly when to turn that faucet on and off. That sort of character development isn’t easy to pull off in such a short space of time without it feeling rushed. It’s an impressive feat.
There’s so much life in this script and its characters. Even with all the focus on Jeanette, writer Andrew Lanham and writer/director Destin Daniel Creton keep the film well balanced. They give us much more than a brief look into the many other family members. They delve deep and get right to the core of each character, exploring who they are as an individual and what role they play within their unconventional family unit. Actor Max Greenfield is brilliant as David, adult Jeanette’s fiancé. He’s a wealthy financial analyst who quite clearly doesn’t fit in with the dysfunctional family. He’s essentially a toned down version of Greenfield’s beloved but overly dramatic New Girl character Schmidt, mixed with a hint of the confidence his cocky, mortgage broker character had in 2015’s The Big Short. It’s an odd but surprisingly funny combination.
The film’s tough subject matter should have you on the edge of your seat with teary eyes and chills ready to travel down your spine but The Glass Castle never quite gets there. The film’s darker and more uncomfortable moments so very nearly become chilling or haunting but pull back right at the last minute. These scenes are a pot of simmering emotions that never manage to boil over, as they so easily could. Or should. They’re missing that oomph, that cinematic spark that has you leaving the cinema a different person. It’s frustrating but the film remains fantastic nonetheless.