MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Photo: Lionsgate Films
Directed by Destin Cretton. Starring Brie Larson, Naomi Watts.
As Leo Tolstoy said in his oft-quoted opening lines of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Most families don’t spend much time wondering if they’re happy or not, and most children assume that they are growing up in a typical family until their worldview expands to include more possibilities.
Jeannette Walls’ bestselling memoir The Glass Castle described her childhood and youth growing up during the 60’s and 70’s in West Virginia (and other locales) with a family that was always on the move. Her father Rex (Woody Harrelson) values independence and new ideas, but he is unable to hold a job for very long and struggles with alcoholism. Her mother Rose Mary (Watts) is a self-centered artist with is not quite in touch with reality. The family moves from place to place, often squatting in abandoned houses with no electricity or plumbing and experiencing near-starvation from time to time. When Jeannette is seriously burned in a kitchen fire as a child, she is admitted to the hospital by her family, who later come for her in a quick getaway to avoid paying the medical bills. Rex can be tender at times but also carelessly abusive as he bullies his kids to follow his independent spirit.
Jeannette becomes the caring older sister who watches over her younger siblings. Together they manage to make something out of their adult lives, but it will require intentional severing of the family ties that bind.
The Glass Castle begins with Jeannette (Larson) as an adult, working in New York City as a gossip columnist and engaged to a successful financial advisor (Max Greenfield). As Jeannette ponders the best way to share her troubled (and buried) past with the people in her life, the film moves backwards and forward in time, with three sets of actors playing the Walls kids. The gifted actress Brie Larson (Room) has some dramatic confrontations with her father, but the big scenes in the film are centered in her earlier years, with Ella Anderson exceptional at a 10-year-old Jeannette.
The film version of The Glass Castle has softened some of the rough edges from the book while doing a good job communicating the hard times growing up in the Walls family. The relationship between the children is handled very well, and I enjoyed Sadie Sink and Sarah Snook as Lori Walls, the sister who could provide sarcastic commentary to every family misadventure.
There’s a lot of good stuff going on in this film, but the last half-hour piles on a few too many confrontational scenes back-to-back. This dramatic choice undercuts the subtle effectiveness of the film’s first ninety minutes. The decision to show the real Walls family at the end of the movie, talking and laughing about their wacky upbringing, is effective in creating a safe place for the film to land, but is a misstep that undermines the pathos that was created by the film’s talented cast.
A fter my screening, I heard several people in the audience commenting to one another that they were thankful that their family wasn’t as unhinged as the Walls family. Perhaps, but all families are unhinged in their own way.
Three halos: A harrowing true-life story about family and resiliency after trauma.
Three pitchforks: Alcoholism, abusive living conditions, hunger, stealing, one scene of implied sexual abuse of a child, swearing.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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