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Great Performances Are Highlight of Moving But Flawed "The Glass Castle": Review

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Film Review: The Glass Castle


The trailer for The Glass Castle did not impress me. It looked like just another generic awards hopeful, but I was surprisingly quite moved by the film. The Glass Castle tells the story of the Walls family, led by father Rex (Woody Harrelson), an alcoholic who can't keep a steady job and moves his family (including his artist wife Rose Mary played by Naomi Watts) around often as a result. The film deals with the effects of living in poverty has on the family's children, mainly daughter Jeanette (played at different ages by Chandler Head, Ella Anderson, and Brie Larson). The film alternates between the story of Jeanette's childhood and when Jeanette is an adult gossip columnist in the 1980s in New York, where her parents are squatting in an abandoned building.

The movie is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and written by Cretton and Andrew Lanham. I have a feeling that it would have been better if the story had been told chronologically instead of with two timelines told simultaneously. That way the audience would have a more complete view of how bad Rex got during Jeanette's childhood and could appropriately assess her actions as an adult. There are a couple of sequences that, directed by Cretton, are absolutely riveting, such as the scene where Rex tries to teach Jeanette how to swim by throwing her under the water. We know nothing bad is going to happen to her, but we are terrified nonetheless.

The three central performances are outstanding. Brie Larson plays Jeanette like a classic movie heroine. The central conflict of the film is actually within Jeanette, not Rex, and the movie is at its best when it's playing up that conflict in the '80s-set New York scenes. Naomi Watts' performance is so vibrant and alive, it just draws attention to the fact that the movie isn't really interested in her character. She'll have a great scene and then we won't see her again for ten minutes. Rose Mary appears to be somewhat unbalanced as well but the movie, unfortunately, doesn't delve into her psyche much. The best performance in the movie belongs to Woody Harrelson. The whole movie rests on whether or not the audience buys into his captivating, magnetic, frenzied face.

The major themes covered are about parents and children, and the way children think of their parents, in spite of themselves sometimes. Also touched upon are ideas about authenticity vs. materialism and the value of dreaming for the sake of dreaming. The ending of the film would come off as preposterous had this not been a true story (it's based on Jeanette Walls' memoir). But the movie does a good job at justifying Walls' decisions, even when the most of the audience is thinking they wouldn't do the same in that situation (although I suspect they are wrong about that). The very last scene leaves things just a little too neat for my liking. The Glass Castle definitely has its flaws, but even when it doesn't feel authentic, it always feels personal in a kind of storybook way. I can appreciate that.

What did YOU think of The Glass Castle? Let me know in the comments below! Thanks for reading!

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