Jeannette Walls’s childhood was the stuff of movies. Raised by free-spirited parents, she and her siblings were nomads, shunted around the country chasing the dream of an uncompromised life. “Daddy says where we are,” young Jeannette (Chandler Head) says, “is where home is.”
When we first see Jeannette (played as an adult by Brie Larson) it’s 1989. She is a successful gossip columnist for New York Magazine, engaged to David (Max Greenfield) an up-and-coming investment banker. Her cab ride home from a fancy dinner is interrupted by two homeless people who disrupt traffic as they garbage pick from a dumpster. Upset, she ignores them as the cab drives through the intersection.
Turns out the two are her parents, Rex (Woody Harrelson) and Rose Mary (Naomi Watts). The two are happily squatting in an abandoned building, continuing a lifelong tradition of living off the grid. He schools them by experience. “You learn from living,” he says. “Everything else is a damn lie.”
Rex is short tempered, an often drunk dreamer always looking for a place to start over. Rose Mary is an artist who redefines free-spirited. Together they raised their kids in an uncompromising manner. On the road constantly they hopscotch around the country at Rex’s whim, kept going by his promise of building them a gleaming new home, their very own Glass Castle. “All this running around is temporary,” he says. “We just need the perfect location for our castle.”
Throughout good times and bad Jeannette has a special relationship with Rex but his drinking spins out of control she realizes the kids have to go their own way.
Shades of last year’s ode to antiestablishment living “Captain Fantastic” hang heavy over “The Glass Castle.” Both chronicle overbearing fathers and their pliable children but the new film feels different because it never entirely embraces the alternative lifestyle it portrays. Walls—whose memoir forms the basis of the movie—is ultimately sympathetic in her portrayal of the man who infuriated her as much as he raised her. It is a father and daughter story about overcoming a non-traditional upbringing while also realizing he made her the person she is today.
It’s Jeannette’s life but it is Harrelson who steals the show. Is he the most versatile actor working today? He’s a journeyman who jumps from franchises to character dramas, from comedies to tragedies. As Rex he’s a volatile presence, loving one second, throwing a chair threw a window the next. Harrelson never plays him as a villain. Rather he explores the depths of the complex character, finding the kernels of humanity that allow us to look past his bluster.
By the time the end credits roll “The Glass Castle” feels stretched, as though director Destin Daniel Cretton doesn’t want the story to end. It’s a little too flashback-y in its last half hour, showing us things we already know, and a big epiphany moment—complete with swelling orchestra—feels forced. There are some heartfelt and emotional moments early on but as the story unfolds Creton allows it to melt into a puddle of unnecessary sentimentality.