Hot Take: Based on a true story, it’s like Captain Fantastic… if the father was a drunk, irresponsible and unable to provide actual parenting for his children and the mother was a whimsical artist who thought art was more important than, well, anything. So, maybe it’s not really like Captain Fantastic.
Jeannette Walls had a rough upbringing which she details in the best selling memoir The Glass Castle. While I haven’t read the memoir, from most accounts, the resulting Hollywood version has a thick coat of glossy polish over the actual story. That would explain why I’m trying to figure out what’s so damn sentimental about neglectful parents who can’t hold a job, move dozens of times, force their children to cook for themselves at a young age (to the point where Jeannette sets herself on fire making a hot dog) and barely provides anything other than hardship and examples of what not to do.
Brie Larson plays the present day Walls while Chandler Head and Ella Anderson play the youngest and younger versions of Walls as the story is told through flashbacks. The story follows Jeannette and her siblings as they cope with their eccentric and irresponsible parents and learn to function out of necessity to survive the harrowing conditions of their childhood. Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts play Rex and Rose Mary Walls, the aforementioned parents. Harrelson puts on an especially impressive performance and despite the movie’s shortcomings, stands out amongst the cast. The film has a fatal flaw in its storytelling as it spends the first two thirds of the film without sentimentality only to find its way to a more Hollywood ending that doesn’t quite fit everything else we’ve watched until that point.
In fact checking, the film version was altered from the memoir. It apparently received a little Hollywood polish. The film, already unapologetic and unsavory at times, is toned down from the source material. It helps explain some things as it felt like the writer had some compassion for the parents of Walls and wanted to make sure no matter how many times they blew off their basic parental responsibilities, they were actually helping their children become better people. Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right? To be honest, that’s where the film leaves a bad taste in my mouth. There are times where Walls’ silent positive reflection on the course of events that shaped her life feels less like reverence and more like Stockholm syndrome. Chalking up bad parenting to an unorthodox method to deliver key life lessons feels lazy and disingenuous and enabling to whomever else chooses to decide that the best way to parent is to not parent at all.
The film still does manage to tug a bit at the heart strings and deliver an emotional climax. In reflection, it felt more manipulative than well crafted and the film, as a whole, failed to deliver a complete experience. Plus, by the end, I was questioning whether or not the main character was grateful for her lessons learned or grateful to have survived. To have a talent like Larson at your disposal and generally waste it sitting idly by as the story develops around her is a disservice, too. This was the Woody Harrelson show despite Larson’s Jeannette being the main character and it’s never great when a main character takes a backseat to a supporting one. The Glass Castle might be worth a look and I’m sold on the fact that the Walls memoir by the same name might be a page turner but it’s probably better to wait for the video release rather than rushing out to see it at theaters.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- Woody Nails It
I’m not sure I can remember a time where Woody Harrelson didn’t maximize the role he was given. Whether in a starring or supporting role, it’s rare, if ever, that he doesn’t not only feel right for the part but better than anyone else that could have been cast. This is another prime example as Harrelson’s portrayal of Rex is both captivating and compelling.
- The Younger Jeannette
While I was a little critical of Larson’s performance, both young girls who play Jeannette are excellent in their role. It’s to the point that when her flashbacks reach a point where Larson is capable of playing the character, you miss the younger versions of her.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- Why Swerve From the Source Material?
I get that sometimes you need to put a Hollywood shine on a subject but, in the case of The Glass Castle, it’s hard to understand why a film would choose to show a number of Jeannette’s childhood recollections without pulling punches only to close the film out with a pretty bow on everything.