This time last year saw the release of Captain Fantastic, a drama focusing on an unconventional family set-up, with a suffocating, if affectionate paternal presence. Now we have Destin Daniel Cretton’s The Glass Castle, which adheres to a similar theme, except is a more gritty affair, and while still maintaining a whimsical edge, it’s been toned down effectively, and managed in a more accomplished manner.
Rex (Woody Harrelson) is the head of the household; a volatile, eccentric father who has a unique way of raising his four children, as a family always on the move, refusing to abide by convention. His wife Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) is an artist, and his children all harbour ambitions to one day set off the to city and make a life for themselves away from his tyrannical rule, and none more so than Jeannette (Brie Larson), who dreams of being a writer. Fast forward a few years and she’s engaged to businessman David (Max Greenfield) – finally gaining a semblance of independence. But her family ties are strong, and her father is not quite willing to let go anytime soon.
Based on a real set of events (and a book penned by Jeannette Walls herself), The Glass Castle delves into the notion of our own relationship with our parents. How we revere them at a young age, how they can do no wrong – until we get older and their flaws and imperfections become apparent, how suddenly we draw parallels between ourselves and them, making them more human. In this instance Jeannette grew up and saw her father for who he was – an alcoholic, a charlatan, a damaged man who inflicted his own inner demons and turmoil onto his offspring. And yet that doesn’t detract from the love he gave.
Naturally Larson is terrific in the lead role, but she is matched at every turn by Harrelson, who carries the film’s tricky tone on his shoulders in a way that only he knows how, blending comedy and tragedy in a remarkable fashion. Even in Kingpin – a bonafide comedic endeavour, he still injects a sense of pathos, a vulnerability to the lead role which makes him so easy to invest in. This works in this endeavour as The Glass Castle has no palpable villains. Yes there is conflict, and people who make mistakes (some rather terrible ones) but you see the humanity in each and every one of them, and understand that people are complex, and families even more so.
What transpires is a film that is emotional in parts, with a profundity injected into this narrative which makes for an engaging cinematic endeavour. It does get somewhat mawkish at the end, with a Hollywoodised finale that doesn’t feel in line with what preceded it – but overall it’s well-handled, and just about remains on the right side of sentiment.
The Glass Castle is released on October 6th.