The studios have made a habit of calling promising indie filmmakers up to the majors in a big way, resulting in some notable big-budget crash-and-burns — looking at you, Josh Trank (Fantastic Four) and Justin Kurzel (Assassin's Creed). Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton provides a different case study. Following his aching 2013 breakout Short Term 12, Cretton didn't jump the rungs to a blockbuster franchise. Instead, The Glass Castle, similarly consumed with the effects of parental neglect and anchored by his Short Term 12 star Brie Larson, feels like a natural progression, and the smarter play.
Fans of the source material — Jeannette Walls' bestselling memoir, a book club mainstay — can duck out for this next bit, the what's-it-about. Larson plays the book's author, a gossip columnist at New York magazine in the late '80s. In a powerful course correction to her upbringing, she's shacking up with an emotionally stable financial analyst on Park Avenue, and her job is kind of a cosmic joke.
All power suit and pearls, Jeannette makes a living dishing dirt, but she's buried deep her own hardscrabble beginnings, as one of four children both charmed and scarred by their parents' peripatetic, anti-authoritarian lifestyle. Dad Rex (Woody Harrelson) is whip-smart but can't hold a job down, preferring drink and rousing monologues about learning self-sufficiency, staring down demons, damning the man, and so on. Mom Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), an amateur painter, loves her husband blindly, and her children abstractly; you get the feeling she wishes them well, but doesn't feel any special responsibility regarding their care and handling.
Using the grown Jeannette in New York as the film's North Star, Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham jog back to different points in her childhood. It takes a while to differentiate the four Walls children, but the performances — by a small army of sensitive, ginger-haired kids and adults, in three timelines — cleave you to the characters, even when you can't remember their names.
The film deftly handles these temporal shifts, particularly in a montage (delicately scored by composer Joel P. West) that introduces Jeannette as a teenager, played by Larson in a different, younger guise. Here, she is plain-faced, jaw set to escape the poverty-stricken West Virginia town the family has landed in, as well as the psychic grip her now-raging alcoholic father has on her.
By dint of the story, Larson is an impermanent presence, and Watts is something more spectral, purposefully — there are moments of family drama where you scan the screen frantically wondering, "Where is the mother, and why is she not being a mother?" In contrast, Harrelson is both the film's rock and its millstone. With that mile-wide smile, he seems most at ease when Rex is manic and mythic.
But the film's third-act reach for a redemptive arc plays hollowly, and Harrelson teeters over the line into hillbilly affectation. Still, it's not enough to erase the memory of Harrelson's subtler moments, or to ruin what is an altogether worthy adaptation. Though I longed for the same rawness and emotional immediacy of Short Term 12, there's something to be said for Cretton keeping the audience at a slight remove: The better to admire this polished, accomplished picture.♦