The Glass Castle is a vibrant feature film by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) based on former gossip columnist and American writer Jeanette Wall’s 2005 memoir of the same name.
The film recounts Walls’ tumultuous childhood which saw the Walls family move constantly, squat in unimaginable living quarters and deal with unkept promises by Wall’s unrealistic and alcoholic father, Rex (Woody Harrelson).
The Walls family consists of siblings Lori (Sarah Snook), Jeanette (Brie Larson), Brian (Josh Caras) and Maureen (Brigette Lundy-Paine), mother Rose Mary, played by Naomi Watts, and Rex.
Rose Mary, as we get to learn early on in the film, is an absentminded artist with a total hands-off approach to raising her kids. She is completely immersed in her world of canvases where kids seem to need no discipline nor a helping hand.
Rex, at first encounter, seems to be the perfect travel companion: open-minded, adventurous and playful.
“You learn by living,” he says by taking the family car for a joyride off the paved highway, which later turns into a painting day for Rose Mary and a night under the stars for the whole family.
As the story progresses, we quickly observe the dysfunctionality of the family and its consequences.
We find out that Rex’s use of escapism, which he uses to deter his kids’ attention from their constant conditions of poverty, isn’t always sweet and tender. We see him abuse the bottle on one too many occasions, and as the kids grow, Rex imposes his anti-“system” views further by being strongly opposed to any sort of structured education.
Harrelson’s performance as Rex is powerful and will leave you questioning his non-conforming methods with the more classic styles of child-rearing .
On one end, we want to cheer on Rex for the magic he creates for the kids. On another, we witness the neglectful behaviours of both parents and shake our heads in disgust and sadness when the kids go hungry.
The Glass Castle is a good teacher and a good lesson. It teaches constant resilience, perseverance and growth. It taught Walls and her siblings how to “swim or sink” quickly – perhaps too quickly, to the point where the kids awoke, not in adulthood, but as youngsters swimming for air from Rex’s radicalism. It also taught them self-discipline when it came to finding a way to an education.
The Glass Castle teaches an equally good lesson that shows up as the “self”, symbolically portrayed in Rex. The quote “hurt people hurt others” rings true here and Rex is no exception. Inner turmoil, we all have it, and by watching The Glass Castle, we observe the sabotaging of the “self” and others when its healing is not made a priority.
All in all, The Glass Castle is a film to be curious about. Some critics say it was romanticized, and it might have been. Some say the past and the present weren’t linked effectively. But, these are technicalities I do not care about. I’d like to think childhoods, no matter the degree of traumatic, shape us into the person we were always meant to be, Walls’ being no exception and rather an example of the beauty of adversity.