Jeannette Walls lived a turbulent childhood: her parents bustled her and her 3 siblings from town to town, evading bill collectors, never quite having enough money for both food and her father’s insatiable thirst. Poverty and addictions pock her youth, but for all their struggles, her mother would never leave her father, and the kids soon realized they’d need to fend for themselves, each disappearing to the big city as soon as it was feasible (a real challenge when someone is constantly drinking up all the money).
Walls went on to write a memoir detailing the hardships she lived through, and that book became this movie, though something was lost getting from A to B. The book pulls no punches. Her parents are complex characters, and their children have conflicted feelings toward them. The movie’s a little more pat, the trajectory a little more Hollywood. Someone decided to apply some spit shine to this story, a story that’s naturally very dark and brooding now has themes of hope and redemption that maybe don’t belong.
I can’t say what exactly is wrong with the film except it’s just too easy. The grit is gone. Sure Jeannette’s father Rex is charming but he’s also kind of a monster. He’s a negligent parent who abuses his wife and kids and helps keep family molestation on the down low. And of course he wants deathbed forgiveness. Meanwhile his wife is a “free spirit” who chooses homelessness over independence from the man threatening her family’s well being. Neither parent is capable of putting their children’s needs first, or of meeting those needs even if they ever did. Which they don’t.
But The Glass Castle is worth a watch for the performances alone. As Jeannette, Brie Larson lives up to her previous Oscar win, but it’s Woody Harrelson as Rex who you’ll remember. He’s tortured and endearing and inspiring and hateful. Is this the film he’ll win his Oscar for? I wouldn’t be disappointed if he did. But shame on Hollywood for trying to put gloss and a positive spin on childhood poverty. These kids were failed not just by their parents but by the system. And now their brave story is being watered down to make it more palatable for film audiences. Shame.