The Walls family arrives at their latest new home in The Glass Castle. (Lionsgate image)

Reel Reviews: Life without glass castles

I say, “The Glass Castle is every bit as fulfilling and disappointing as the character’s lives.”

Based on the best-selling memoir of Jeanette Walls (Brie Larson), The Glass Castle is the impossible dream of a dysfunctional family. Parents Rex (Woody Harrelson) and Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) live a nomadic life, partly because they are non-conformists, but mostly because Rex is an alcoholic. When their four children get old enough to notice the problems their parents have, they begin raising themselves, vowing to go to school, saving up money and moving away as soon as possible.

As adults, all four children moved to the New York area where their homeless parents squatted in an abandoned building just so they could be near their family who, for the most part, ignored them. Refusing assistance and proud to live their non-conformist life, Rex and Rose Mary never changed their ways but believed the success and resilience of their children justified their methods. Near the end of Rex’s life, Jeanette and the others forgive their parents, able to appreciate how lucky they were to live such a unique, but difficult life.

I say, “The Glass Castle is every bit as fulfilling and disappointing as the character’s lives.”

Howe is still camping, but he will be back for our next review. This week, I chose to review The Glass Castle over Wind River, which is a rural murder mystery starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olson, because to me, the former sounds more interesting than the latter and has obviously better actors.

Although The Glass Castle is a little formulaic — using the adult Jeanette Walls, her life and her problems are flashed back to their causes, her relationship with her parents and upbringing — it’s still effective. There are several moving moments throughout the film. I’ve read that it is a “four hanky” tearjerker, but I’d only give it “one hanky.” My eyes welled up at the end, but tears did not roll.

I think most people could have an appreciation for these characters that come from life if they have children or an understanding of poverty or alcoholism. Parents at some point have to break little hearts in lessons that they’d rather not share, “I’m not perfect. I have problems. I make mistakes. We have to move. I’ve lost my job. There is only butter to eat,” etc.

Myself and my family are certainly not entirely dreamers or drunks, I’m just saying that the tug of war between guilt and pride is palpable in this film about family.

This is Harrelson’s best performance, ever. Larson and Watts are great as well, but they’re kind of always great. It’s a special treat to see Harrelson become a character rather than play a character. Harrelson has always been fine, sort of “just there.” In The Glass Castle, he’s not present, only Rex Walls is onscreen and he is a man torn up. The film is worth seeing just for Harrelson’s performance alone.

Don’t feel this is “chick flick” or a “downer.” This is a film about family, strength and independence. It’s about how you don’t have to be what you came from, but at least part of you should want to, if only because the fact that you are here attests to the strength of your upbringing.

I give The Glass Castle 4 packs of cigarettes out of 5.

— Brian Taylor and Peter Howe are film reviewers based in Vernon. Their column, Reel Reviews, appears every Friday.