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The Glass Castle

For those who haven’t heard of it (which is sadly too many of you, I’m sure), Short Term 12 is an absolutely brilliant film with one glaring, horrible flaw. The film itself is an inspiring, poignant, heartbreaking, whip-smart examination of a deeply sensitive subject, powered by a performance that damn well should’ve gotten Brie Larson an Oscar before she earned one for Room. The flaw? The whole film looks like it was shot on a camcorder swinging from a ceiling fan. Even so, it’s a criminally underrated movie that I can’t recommend highly enough.

So now we have a movie in which Brie Larson reteams with the writer/director of Short Term 12, and he actually set the camera on a goddamn tripod this time. Sign me up!

The Glass Castle dramatizes the true-life story of journalist Jeannette Walls, here played at varying ages by Larson, Ella Anderson, and Chandler Head. The film weaves through various time periods, but Jeannette’s adult life in the late ’80s/early ’90s is more or less our framing device. At this point, Jeannette is a successful gossip columnist freshly engaged to a financial analyst in New York (David, played by Max Greenfield). The engagement throws fresh drama into Jeannette’s family, leading her to reminisce about her unorthodox childhood.

A lot of that has to do with Jeannette’s father (Rex, played by Woody Harrelson) an Air Force vet who constantly kept his family moving. Rex had a mean stubborn streak, you see, with the firm belief that the rules didn’t apply to him or his family. So he and his family went freeloading all over the country, moving every time the bill collectors and/or local law enforcement came knocking.

At this point, it’s worth making some comparisons with another movie about an unorthodox patriarch: Captain Fantastic. Viggo Mortensen and Woody Harrelson both play loving fathers who live off the grid in rejection of rampant materialism, corporate greed, and government overreach. The similarities pretty much end there. To start with, Mortensen’s character was legitimately smart enough and capable enough to back up his arrogance. He seemed to know everything about everything, with an argument to calmly shut down any statement he disagreed with. Compare that to Harrelson’s character, who falls back on muscle and bull-headed persistence when anyone or anything gets in his way. Additionally, while Harrelson’s character is apparently some kind of genius engineer, he seems to be pulling everything else right out of his ass or brushing it off entirely.

Another crucial difference is that Mortensen’s character genuinely knew how to live off the land. He could and did teach his kids how to grow, catch, and prepare their own food. There was never any doubt that his kids were well-fed and well-educated. Compare that to the children of Harrelson’s character, who in one scene are so desperate for food that they resort to eating sugar and butter. Even if both characters’ plans were unsustainable in the long term, Mortensen’s character at least had viable plans and philosophies that worked (in the short term) as an alternative to the corporate America he so despised. Compare that to Harrelson’s character, whose plans consist pretty much entirely of the eponymous glass house that he constantly dreams of but never stands a chance of actually completing so long as he keeps flying by the seat of his pants.

But what’s easily the most important comparison is that while both patriarchs pushed their kids to survive harsh conditions that would make other parents wince, Mortensen’s character was never the least bit abusive. Moreover, he didn’t drown himself in booze and cigarettes, spending money that might otherwise have gone to food.

As a man of pure emotion, Rex is equally uninhibited in his love and in his rage. He’ll talk until he’s blue about how he’d do anything for his wife and kids, and he means every word; but when the chips are down and he has to act, he will always act in his own self-interest over that of his family. And he doesn’t see the hypocrisy at all. It’s a perfect recipe for an abusive patriarch, but his wife (Rose Mary, played by Naomi Watts) simply doesn’t have the strength to pick up the kids and leave.

Rex wanted to raise his kids to be strong. In the end, he only raised them to be strong enough to run away from him. His kids had to learn how to care for themselves and each other, because their parents wouldn’t care for them.

This leads me to a huge recurring problem throughout the entire film: Most of the huge thematic points come from Rex and his worldview, but the man is so incredibly full of shit that it’s hard to know how much we should take his statements seriously. Alternatively, the film often shows Jeannette calling her parents out on their shit, but does so in a way that nevertheless demands sympathy for the parents. Thus the film seems to be self-contradictory and it’s hard to tell precisely what we’re supposed to take away from all of this.

This is an especially huge problem at the end, when Rex and Rose Mary ask Jeannette to forgive them for all their failings as parents, focusing instead on the good times they had. The actors involved are all putting in a ton of work, but drama isn’t when the actors cry — it’s when the audience cries. And I was left completely dry-eyed because the characters and the movie hadn’t earned that moment.

Everyone in the cast turns in good work with what they’re given, but the only characters who really end up sticking are Jeannette and Rex. This is especially bad in the case of Rose Mary — given her crucial role in the plot and the wonderful talent of Naomi Watts, the character should have left a far greater impression than she did. Furthermore, while Woody Harrelson and Brie Larson both do fine, they’ve done better elsewhere. Hell, Larson’s peformance with this same director in Short Term 12 was miles better than anything here.

The Glass Castle isn’t terrible — the performances are good, the visuals are competent, and there’s clearly enough heart here to serve as a worthy tribute to someone’s actual family. But it’s hard for me to call it a good movie when it’s so muddled. While I appreciate the attempt at nuance, this one goes too far in creating characters so alternately despicable and wonderful that I have no idea how I’m supposed to feel about them as a whole.

Ultimately, I think it’s rather telling how many times I had to invoke Short Term 12 and Captain Fantastic while writing this review. You’d probably be better off watching either of those instead.

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