*Light spoilers ahead
I’m going to be honest. If there is one trope I don’t get tired of, it’s the crazy father trope. I love it in my books, I love it in my movies, and it’s nothing new in our culture. All the best villains and heroes have daddy issues (Luke, I am your father, anyone?). I’ve always found the trope fascinating. Maybe because of its insight into human psychology and how Freudian it can be. Maybe because it feels so removed from me personally, as I have a wonderful father who loves me enough to edit this review. Either way, it’s always been intriguing.
But this film with its eccentric father isn’t dealing with fiction. This is real life. Based on Jeannette Wall’s memoir of the same name about her tumultuous childhood under an alcoholic father and neglectful mother, The Glass Castle juggles tragedy wrapped up in childhood innocence. Hearing a story like that is a reminder that this archetype has roots in very real, dark places.
Something I admired when I read Wall’s memoir was the matter-of-factness the book had. When describing her childhood, Walls never indulged in sentimentality or despair. Instead, she told the events through the eyes of her childhood self. Traumatic events were sometimes viewed as exciting adventures when framed to her by her father. The realization of how abusive her situation was came later. Walls never diminished what happened, but instead put it into perspective. It was clear to me while reading that Walls never let her upbringing become excuses, which is very admirable.
There is that quality in this film, too, until the end. Up until then, the scenes of Walls’ childhood play out with a lack of exploitation. When her father Rex (Woody Harrelson) explains to Jeanette (played as a child by Ella Anderson and Chandler Head, played as an adult by Brie Larson) that sneaking out of a hospital is an exciting adventure, there is playful music because that is how child Jeanette is perceiving it. When an older Jeanette realizes her father stole her college money, the scene is darker and the music is gone, because Jeanette has matured enough to understand the true situation. Any reflections on the events take place in the adult-Jeanette scenes, which is how the memoir is written. I liked how the story, for the most part, let it speak for itself. It would be very tempting to do the opposite, especially in a story like this that deals with children.
All of this subtlety falters near the end, though, when director and co-screenwriter Destin Daniel Cretton gets antsy and decides the audience can’t figure out the metaphors for themselves. Brie Larson is saddled with having to explain the glass castle metaphor from the title, the similarities between Jeanette and Rex, the strengths of the family, the power of forgiveness, the complexities of fatherhood, and so on. It’s a shame, because I think the movie does such a good job letting the story find its own significance and importance, without having to assert it in a preachy manner.
The performances elevate the script, though, and Brie Larson and the rest of the cast are up to the task of the more heavy-handed moments. I haven’t seen Room, so I finally got to see Ms. Larson and how good of an actress she is. I’m definitely ready for her to play Captain Marvel.
Woody Harrelson is the other star, though, and he is phenomenal. There are a lot of times he could have chewed scenery and done very Woody Harrelson-y things, but he never does. He dances between manic and sober, enlightening and pessimistic in every scene, but it never rings false. His unpredictability keeps the film and the audience on their toes, making the story feel even more real. The child actors also are all fantastic.
The ending aside, whether you learn the story of the Walls family through the excellent memoir or the good film, it’s still a story worth taking to heart. It is a discussion of nature versus nurture, the importance of parents and their influence, the resilience of children, and the ultimate power of hope and forgiveness. It is also a reminder that earthly fathers may fail, but there is one who does not.