Film Review: The Glass Castle – a teacher in family dynamics and how it shapes us


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.

Flashback to summer 2013: On set North Country Cinema’s The Valley Below


TheValleyBelowonsetPhotobyClaireMiglionicoHOMEGROWN TALENT DREAMS BIG

August 20th, 2013, 10:00 a.m.: East Coulee, Alta. 

The drive from Calgary to Drumheller is a good hour and a half. Add about 20 minutes to get to East Coulee – the hamlet-sized agglomeration of 140 people, now technically part of the Drumheller municipality. It must be at least 25 degrees outside, the sun is blazing hot and the epic badlands surround the seemingly deserted streets of East Coulee. It is completely silent outside; only the sounds of grasshoppers of some sort resonate in the wind. What a perfect place for a film set.

TheValleyBelowtherentedhousebyClaireMiglionicoMake a right from Highway 10, then a left right away, continue on for about 100 m and you’ll find yourself in front of a corner lot where a red and green house stands, the home base for Kyle Thomas’ crew for his new feature-length film, The Valley Below, for the next few days. The crew is returning to the Badlands come November to shoot winter scenes. The film is aimed for a multi-platform release date in 2014.

“As you can tell, this is kind of a light day. No one’s really stressed. Who’s ever really stressed though?” says Alexander (Sandy) Carson, The Valley Below’s Ottawa born-and-raised producer.

The crew is getting ready for a late morning shoot and it’s true: no one really seems stressed. There’s cooking going on in the background, some laughing, more talking, general happiness all around.

Carson is super friendly right away and open for discussion. He seems to be Thomas’ right-hand man, his go-to guy, the one who has the answer to anything related to film. Thomas is sitting close by with his laptop open, planning the day ahead and perhaps answering a couple emails.

TheValleyBelowbowlingalleyshootphotobyClaireMiglionicoCarson shares: “We were having one of those heart-to-heart conversations last night, sitting around, having a couple drinks and saying, ‘Well, we just wouldn’t want to do it if it wasn’t fun.’”

“It” being filmmaking, an art that seems to have taken over Thomas’ and Carson’s souls, no questions asked.

Both are alums of the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema at Montreal’s Concordia University, with Carson holding a BFA in film production and an MA in film studies.

Upon completion of their BFAs, Carson and Thomas launched North Country Cinema, a director-driven media arts collective based in Calgary and supported by numerous film councils, including The National Film Board of Canada and The Alberta Foundation for the Arts. Its mandate is to create strong visual storytelling set in the Canadian cultural and artistic landscapes, something we will surely be treated to with The Valley Below.

“We’re interested in building the brand (North Country Cinema) mainly as a Western Canadian thing. Obviously, Kyle’s family’s from here and we have a lot of friends out here. We wanted to do bring more experimental and personal narratives to this relatively underrepresented part of the country,” shares Carson.

Kris Demeanor

The Valley Below stars Kris Demeanor as Warren and Mandy Stobo (Bad Portraits) as Ada, both returning actors from Thomas’ short film, Not Far from the Abattoir, which inspired The Valley Below, its full-length counterpart.

“[Not Far from the Abattoir] is about personal demons, redemption. It’s about a guy who’s at a bad spot in his life work-wise; his personal life: he’s single, he’s alone, he’s drinking too much. Then, he has a encounter: he meets this girl, Ada. Although nothing really intimate or sexy happens, they have a nice night getting to know each other. And this relationship gives him some new hope to find a way forward,” says Carson.

The Valley Below picks up after what looked like a hopeful open ending roughly three to four years later, says Carson. We find out that these two characters have had a relationship, had a baby, but split up again once they reverted to old habits.

“I mean, as much as Warren is a bit of bum, he is likeable. You want him to succeed and you can tell that Mandy and Kris’ characters still really love each other. So, the film poses a question: can this relationship work, can these people rise above their adversities?” says Carson.

11:30 a.m., The Car Wash: Drumheller, Alta.

TheValleyBelow_onset_photobyClaireMiglionicoThe crew finally drives into town. We’re dropping by an auto shop to pick up a rental truck for a car wash scene starring Demeanor. The crew is setting up in an empty parking lot across the retro-inspired car wash. Demeanor is given directions through a walkie-talkie while he soaks up his pick-up truck across the street.

“I think it’s worth mentioning that a lot of people who are in this film as actors come from different backgrounds,” says Carson.

In Montreal, roommates of varying backgrounds, from actors to musicians, always surrounded Carson and Thomas. As musicians and photography buffs, the melding of different artistic disciplines into one big film project just seemed to be the perfect way to “explore the limits of film itself,” says Carson.

“Kris is a writer and musician, Mandy is a painter. We have lots of actors that are coming from the theatre. It is a multi-disciplinary project in terms of the influences that are coming into the work,” he says.

Thomas, who saw Demeanor perform live in the past, approached him for the role of Warren.

“I thought that somebody who had a musical career, had been on tour, had slept in the back of a van could bring that sensibility and way of life into the character. That was my first instinct,” says Thomas on picking Demeanor for the role.

Stobo, on the other hand, came in as an audition. Coincidentally, Stobo’s character is also a painter.

“She came in and the performance was just so good. It just seemed that this role was her in many ways but I didn’t know her [beforehand]. It was strange, she said she sunk right into it and I guess it happened a bit by chance,” shares Thomas.

3:00 p.m., Back to East Coulee 

TheValleyBelowPhotobyClaireMiglionicoSara Corry, the production manager, has cooked a massive meal for everyone. There’s salad, macaroni and cheese and chili. The boys are hungry.

There are a total of 13 crew members with a key team that includes Cameron Macgowan as producer, Sara Corry as co-producer/production manager, Mike McLaughlin as cinematographer, Bobby Vanonen as production designer and, of course, Kyle Thomas as writer/director/producer/editor and Alexander Carson as producer.

“I think having a smaller crew is good because [everyone’s] more engaged. I mean, there’s a bunch of us doing multiple tasks, everyone’s always busy, you feel more connected to [the project] and, you know, we’re living in a house here together and eating meals together,” says Thomas.

“It was different from any other film we ever worked on because it was so dedicated to the characters and getting to the heart of the scene without relying heavily on production which can eat up a lot of time and money,” he says.

According to Carson, Telefilm Canada provided a $120,000 grant for the film to be made, following some conditions.

“It’s important to our funders that we pursue innovative digital distribution avenues,” shares Carson.

Carson says they’d still want to go down the traditional festival release route with a digital release around the same time.

Either way, The Valley Below and the filmmakers of North Country Cinema are to watch for. They’ve grown exponentially over the last two years and have been getting a lot of recognition, including this fall’s TIFF and CIFF film festivals.

Visit for more info. The Valley Below is set to be released in 2014.

Joe Perry and Mikaela Cochrane as Henry and Kate

Calgary Cinematheque’s Annual Focus Series puts spotlight on actress Tilda Swinton

CALGARY — This season, the Calgary Cinematheque has made British actress Tilda Swinton their centre of interest for its Annual Focus Series.

Four films featuring Swinton were carefully selected: the British arthouse film The Last of England, directed by the late English director Derek Jarman; I Am Love, the Italian drama by director Luca Guadagnino; the thriller Young Adam by Scottish director David Mackenzie; and finally, 2008’s Julia, a French crime drama directed by Erick Zonca.

Most are likely to be familiar with Swinton’s current role as the “Ancient One” in Marvel’s Doctor Strange or perhaps her role in the mainstream series The Chronicles of Narnia as Jadis, the White Witch.

However, Swinton’s extensive portfolio of cinematic work extends beyond the mainstream, and into arthouse, world and British cinema – all with extremely powerful performances that make her one of the most versatile, idiosyncratic and influential actresses of our time.

Felicia Glatz, programming director at Cinematheque, says that the programming committee has been sitting on the idea of having a Tilda Swinton series for years. She also shares that this season seemed like the perfect opportunity to turn their usually director-driven spotlight onto the performer who sits on the other side of the camera.

“…[I]f I had to distill our reasoning down to a few characteristics [to why we chose Tilda Swinton as our focus for our spotlight series], it would have to be her dexterity as an actress and collaborator, and the humble studiousness that she maintains across all of her projects,” writes Glatz in an email.

Furthermore, Glatz says Swinton is immediately “recognizable” and is “indefinable”.

“Somehow, she never overshadows herself and embodies each character fluidly,” she adds.

Professor James Ellis, who currently teaches 16th and 17th-century poetry and prose at the University of Calgary, has taught British Cinema in the past. He says he first encountered Swinton while doing research for his book on film director Derek Jarman. It was then that Ellis was able to explore in-depth Swinton’s performances in Jarman’s late-70s to early-90s films.

Ellis says that Swinton has been famous for a long time within the alternative art film community and world cinema and is recognizable for her striking androgynous looks and her complete devotion to her art.

“I think part of it dates back to her association with Jarman who was [a] fiercely political, non-commercial artist who believed strongly in collaborative work and experimental art,” he says.

“And now, she’s in Doctor Strange. I think a ton of people are going to see her in that role and hopefully they’ll wonder, ‘who is this person,’ and actually come out and see these films,” he says of the Cinematheque’s Focus Series.

Arthouse film The Last of England (screening come and gone as of writing time) is the perfect example of Swinton’s close collaboration with Jarman.

“[It’s] a very personal and visceral retaliation to political sanctioned homophobia during the Thatcher era and endures as an essential component of New Queer Cinema,” writes Glatz.

In I Am Love, Swinton learned to speak Italian with a Russian accent, the perfect example of her collaborative spirit and fruitful dedication to her art and her strive for more “sensational cinema.”

In Young Adam, Swinton plays opposite Ewan McGregor. Set in 1950s Scotland, she plays a “hard and unforgiving” woman who negotiates a husband and a lover. The film was chosen for her severity in her role of Ella.

Finally, the French crime drama Julia was chosen for this series as it is a type of role rarely portrayed by Swinton, ultimately demonstrating her multifaceted performance capabilities.

“From full-blown calamity to a last hope, Swinton truly epitomizes a woman clawing her way toward some sort of atonement,” shares Glatz.

Calgary Cinematheque ultimately chose films of comparative texts, “in the hope of conveying our own admiration of her craft,” states Glatz, “but mostly to showcase her contribution to what we feel are some powerful and dense films.”

Showtimes (as of press time):
“I Am Love” (2009) – December 1, The Globe Cinema
“Young Adam” (2003) – December 8, The Plaza Theatre
“Julia” (2008) – December 15, The Globe Cinema
For more information, visit 

Story published here