There are plenty of tales of drunken fathers with big dreams that can never be fulfilled, and plenty of stories of families who are as poor as dirt but nevertheless manage to find happiness and strength through the force of their familial bond. Hell, if you grew up reading the books, it might even seem like that latter dynamic is built into the fabric of America.
But there aren't a lot of stories about women who come from backgrounds of desperate poverty, parental neglect, and family alcoholism, who then grow up to be successful writers dishing about the rich and famous for New York Magazine, while their parents, by choice, are rooting through the city's trash and squatting in an abandoned tenement. That's the true story Jeannette Walls told in her memoir The Glass Castle, but it's a story the movie version does not pay enough attention to.
When we meet Jeannette (Brie Larson), she has just spent the evening at an expensive restaurant with her investment banker fiancee David (Max Greenfield) and two of his clients. As she's riding home, she sees an elderly couple digging through a dumpster. The man seems to recognize her, but Jeannette ignores them. We soon learn those people are her parents.
As the film jumps back and forth in time, we see Jeannette as a young girl (a heartbreaking Chandler Head), one of four children of Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) and Rex Walls (Woody Harrelson). Rose Mary is a painter, Rex an aspiring inventor (a solar run house he calls a "glass castle" is his biggest aspiration), which means neither of them brings home much money, and both tend to focus more on themselves than on their children. So it's no surprise when young Jeannette almost burns herself alive making boiled hot dogs for dinner.
When creditors, the law, or any other kind of authority comes a knockin', Rex's first instinct is to take the family and run, moving from rundown house to rundown house, even sleeping under the stars when nothing else is available. But for Rex, this is all an experience, and to him, experience is what life is all about. "Everything else is a damn lie," he says.
And for a while, the family thrives on the adventure. But as the kids get older, the lack of roots, food, and any income starts to wear them down, so they reluctantly return to Rex's West Virginia hometown and a family that likely abused Rex both physically and sexually. The move does nothing to help Rex's drinking problem.
Ella Anderson plays the pre-teen Jeannette, and she turns in a really great performance, matching Woody Harrelson in scene after scene. In fact, it's hard to be critical of a film that doesn't contain a single bad performance, even when, as is the case with Watts's Rose Mary, they aren't given a lot to work with. Rose's only character trait is her love of painting, and while she occasionally challenges Rex, we never fully understand why someone sober and seemingly sane would choose to stay with a raging drunk like Rex.
In reality, Rose suffered from her own mental illness, but this is never alluded to in the film. Instead, we're just supposed to accept she's eccentric, and nothing else.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton is smart to structure the film using back-and-forth chronology; the jumps into present day (actually, 1989) help to dampen the misery of those early years a bit when we see that Jeannette and the rest of the family gets out of West Virginia alive. Yet, a big chunk of the story is missing. After the Walls children realize no one is ever going to take care them, they resolve to take care of themselves, by going to school, earning their own money, and getting the hell out of there.
But the years that it takes them to do this is given about 10 minutes of screen time, and we never find out how Jeannette got to New York Magazine and learned enough about high society to be able to write a column about it, let alone live the life herself. Instead, the focus of the film is on Rex, and whether or not Jeannette will be able to forgive him for the troubled life he forced upon her, her siblings, and her mother.
Brie Larson does such a great job as the steely and resolved Jeannette (with the help of some severe 1980's shoulder pads) that I wanted to see more of her life, navigating high society, a hillbilly girl in pearls taking home everyone's leftovers after a fancy dinner out. A drunken father hoping for forgiveness as his life ends? It's an all too common story that, frankly, doesn't need another telling. Jeannette's rags to riches to repletion story does, and thankfully, her book is still around to tell it.Little House on the Prairie