At the dawn of this decade, the general populace mostly knew Brie Larson as Envy Adams in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and as a recurring heavy presence on the Showtime drama United States Of Tara. In the years since though, she’s starred in a number of acclaimed motion pictures hailing from all sorts of genres, won an Oscar and been cast as a Marvel superhero. Perhaps the movie that really helped her start her ascension to movie star was the 2013 drama Short Term 12, an outstanding feature full of lovable characters and an emphatic spirit that made human beings out of its troubled characters. She reunites with that films director, Destin Daniel Cretton, for the new drama The Glass Castle, which, sadly, is a major step down from the quality of Short Term 12.
Based on a memoir that chronicled the troubled childhood of its author, Jeannette Wallis, The Glass Castle is all about following Wallis as a child growing up with her three siblings, mom Rose Mary Wallis (Naomi Watts) and her dad Rex Walls (Woody Harrelson). Her relationship with her dad is the entire thrust of the feature, as as a youngster Jeannette thinks the world of her dad who’s the kind of guy who can captivate his daughter’s imagination with promises of them one day building an elaborate glass castle to live in. Those kind of fantastical tales are a great way to distract Jeannette and her siblings from the fractured life they life as they constantly move from one run-down house to another.
As Jeannette grows up, she begins to see more and more of her fathers flaws, most notably that he’s an alcoholic who’s never able to kick the bottle. His addiction makes his behavior erratic and keeps the families finances tight in the rare times they even have money at all. Wrapping around these extensive flashbacks are various sequences set in 1989 where an older Jeannette Wallis (here played by Brie Larson, two different child actors play Wallis in the majority of the flashbacks) is residing in New York City as she prepares for marriage and also grapples with the fact that her parents are squatting in an abandoned home not too far away on the lower East Side with her father heavily disapproving of her daughter being so tied to a luxurious lifestyle.
The Glass Castle is obviously expansive in its storytelling as it spans multiple decades to depict the steadily worsening relationship with Jeannette and her dad. So it’s kind of shocking just how, lacking, I guess, certain key elements of the movie turn out to be, namely in just how it handles depicting the cycle of familial abuse. I’m gonna have to use a little thing that’s far from common in film-based internet discourse called “nuance” here because there are things in The Glass Castle’s handling of this material that are actually really well-handled and make me yearn that the entire movie was at that level of quality.
For instance, the writing and performance of Rex in the flashback scenes are probably the best element of the entire movie, he comes across as a realistic depiction of an abusive and troubled father. When it comes time for Rex to be intimidating (such as when he’s getting furious at his children leaving him when they’re old enough to do just that), Harrelson’s performance suggests a real sense of menace while his more vulnerable moments suggests a pained human being whose haunted by his own actions. It’s a complex portrait of a complex human being and one that Harrelson, as an actor, rises to the occasion to play…but he might play the intimidating side of Rex a little too well to be entirely honest with you.
You see, The Glass Castle devotes the majority of its first two acts to these flashbacks, which are far from perfect, mostly because the mom and Jeanette’s three other siblings remain one-note personalities throughout the entire movie, but they’re an overall fine depiction of what it means to grow up in an abusive home. Problem is, they’re sandwiched in a movie whose framing device undercuts that by devoting a more schmaltzy third act that rushes through trying to incorporate redemptive qualities to Rex by way of two (kind of three) stand-alone flashback scenes showing him doing nice gestures to a younger version of Jeannette that were previously never referenced before. Now, the intent is clear behind why these scenes exist, because, again, the film wants to depict Rex as a heavily troubled person with moments of both good and bad behavior, but their placement in the story itself feels abrupt since they’re these standalone segments coming off of 90-ish minutes of Rex being a monster to his children. Instead of adding nuance, it just comes off as a way to overly simplify the father/daughter relationship.
That’s a real shame they bungle the core relationship of the entire movie in the third act because there’s really some individual standout elements before that. One of those is for sure Brie Larson, who’s stuck playing a version of Jeannette Wallis that doesn’t have all that much personality or distinguishing characteristics to speak of but she still gives a really good performance, especially in the final scene of the motion picture. She also manages to nail a mini-speech she gives about her father’s good and bad traits that demonstrate a successful execution of the nuanced take on abusive parents The Glass Castle aspires to but just can’t quite hit thanks to a sloppy third act. Brie Larson can add another strong performance to her resume with The Glass Castle, even if the final film is much more erratic than her best movies.