The Glass Castle is an unfortunately flat and messy adaptation of Jeannette Walls' best-selling memoir about growing up with extreme poverty and with parents who both inspired and damaged her.
You're thinking, "Don't all parents do that?"
Not like this. Walls was scarred by burns at age 7, when her distracted mother (Naomi Watts) told her to boil her own hot dogs on the gas stove. In the hospital, a physician suspects neglect and calls in child services, but the Walls family skips out. Dad (Woody Harrelson) plots a "comical" diversion and the whole gang runs into the street singing and howling and piling into their beat-up wagon.
It's played in the movie for laughs, although none are forthcoming, and this shows what the movie is up against. A skilled writer like Walls could pitch these events as they might have been understood by a child, especially a child whose instinct for psychological self-preservation re-ordered reality to create the illusion that she was safe, that her parents weren't dangerous. Instead, they were merely kooky and unconventional.
Filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton has no such latitude. He's stuck with showing us what happened, and it's like some hopeless cross between Grey's Anatomy and The Partridge Family. It just doesn't work, like so much else in The Glass Castle.
Another example: The filmmaker's decision to create parallel narratives. A series of young actresses play Jeannette through childhood and puberty. Oscar winner Brie Larson plays her as a successful journalist in Manhattan, and the movie uses a flashback structure to alternate, often jarringly, between them.
Neither world has time to take root and grow. The actors work hard to create individual moments of grace, and there are a few — Harrelson captures the father at his most charismatic, talking to his daughter under the desert stars with a well-written speech that somehow explains his alcoholism, his own history of abuse, the gift of resilience he gives to his daughter.
Walls was able to couch her parents' selfish and neglectful behavior with an uncommon empathy, but Cretton hasn't the tools to do so. We cringe when we see her father uses Jeannette's virtue as part of a pool hustle, fails to protect his own children from a known abuser, and engages in paranoid rants that serve as evasive, self-mythologizing excuses for his own failure.
Harrelson dominates The Glass Castle and, through no fault of his own, distorts it. His character's complexities register at the expense of Walls' own. Larson, fresh off an Oscar, has little to do put pose in retro 1980s outfits. Her best movie of the year remains Kong: Skull Island.