Once again the story of a dysfunctional family. But this family did not live in a big American city, pressures of urban life, personality clashes and abuse. Rather, this is the story of a family with a West Virginia, hillbilly background, moving from place to place, a great deal of love in the family but the parents having dreams rather than being anchored in reality – and the consequences for their children.
It is based on a true story, the 2005 memoir of writer, Jeanette Walls. After the harrowing experience of watching her story, her childhood and that of her sisters and brother, and of her adult experiences, there are photos of the actual characters before the final credits as well as some video excerpts of the parents in 1989.
If you want to see admirable performances, then The Glass Castle should be high on your list. The film is not exactly an entertainment. But it is a challenging look at its characters, their behaviours, their mindsets, and the effect that each has on the other.
Rex Walls comes from tough family living in the hills. Several times he takes his wife and children to visit his family, especially his dominatingly stern mother (with the touch of the sinister which gradually emerges). Rex is played by Woody Harrelson, one of his best performances, award-worthy, and building on several decades of his quality acting. Rex is a dreamer, knowledgeable, former air force. Strong skills in engineering, imagining building a house, and always drawing plans, which is environmentally friendly, made of glass. But, the fact is, he is a dreamer rather than an achiever.
While he has four children, the most significant in his life is Jeanette. The film introduces us to her as an adult, remarkably poised, well-dressed, going to an important business dinner with her fiance, the audience learning that she is a columnist, has written stories and gossip columns.
The structure of the film means that the adult Jeanette and her story is the framework for the narrative but the most dramatic part of the action is in the flashbacks. The audience knows some of this and the results of the childhood experiences. Interest is not where it is going but rather how it is going to get to this adult destination. What has Jeanette experienced, her relationship with her father, with her mother, with her siblings?
As regards the acting, Oscar-winner Brie Larson is very strong as the older Jeanette. The two young actresses who portray her as a child, especially Ella Anderson, are worth noting. While her mother, Rose Mary, an artist, is often taken for granted, sometimes in the background, she is nevertheless a very interesting character and unglamorously played by Naomi Watts.
While Rex is a dreamer, moving his family from place to place, a gambler, a drinker, unreliable, he still has great love for his children and there is intensity in his relationship with his wife. His life is an “if only…”. Particularly powerful is the episode where he goes off drink and suffers cold turkey anguish.
In fact, the children fare particularly well given all the disadvantages. But they do have a devotion to their parents, do have a sense of reliability, especially the young Jeanette, and they develop ways in which they can survive and do.
Audiences will not find this an exhilarating experience but, as they live with the characters, discover secrets. They will be encouraged by human resilience. They will realise that this kind of story, if it is to have any meaning, has to be a healing of memories.
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting