Familial dysfunction hits its peak in “The Glass Castle,” a sprawling tale of growing up poverty-stricken in the rural West Virginia mountains. The film is based on author Jeannette Walls‘s best-selling memoir about her real life struggle with her sometimes appalling parents and her three close-knit siblings. Like the book, the film is told from the point of view of the middle girl, giving viewers a focused perspective of the relationship between an alcoholic father with big dreams (Woody Harrelson) and his daughter.
Ella Anderson tackles the role of Jeannette as a kid while Brie Larson takes over for the teenage and young adult years. These are extremely tough parts to play yet both actresses are absolutely stellar here. Naomi Watts plays her eccentric artist and anti-establishment mother Rose. There are Oscar caliber performances all around, from the child actors (Sadie Sink, Iain Armitage) to the adults (Harrelson and Watts, two actors that I think are sorely underrated, are at the top of their game too). There’s a sense of distinction to everyone’s work and the cast remains dedicated until the closing credits.
It’s no secret that Walls’s childhood was less than rosy, but the uncomfortable material apparently has been even further sanitized from the true story on which its based. The film tries so hard not to be too alienating or distressing and at times isn’t dark enough, barely touching on the fact that these children were never properly schooled, lacked the basic comforts and care like running water or electricity, and often didn’t eat for days. The feeling that something is completely “off” about the storytelling lingers from scene to scene.
What sours all of the things the movie gets right is the oddly uncomfortable ending. Instead of choosing to end the film on a high note by celebrating one impoverished young woman’s determination to make a successful life for herself, screenwriters Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham opt to go with a sappy conclusion that comes across as an insincere celebration of an awful man’s life. It’s quite a shame because the rest of the film is so strong.