‘The Glass Castle’ Review: Brie Larson Endures Tough Childhood, Toothless Script

Director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”) coasts over too much of the real-life horror Jeannette Walls captured in her memoir

“The Glass Castle” is a far better book than movie. While this is not surprising on its face, since books are often more complex, moving and involving than their screen adaptations, it is astonishing for other reasons.

The cast is topnotch. Oscar winners and nominees abound. Director Destin Daniel Cretton adapted Jeannette Walls’ bestselling 2005 memoir of a turbulent and destitute upbringing. His previous directorial effort was 2013’s “Short Term 12,” a deeply moving and credible drama about at-risk kids. It would seem an inspired choice having him direct another film about endangered children, especially one starring such stellar actors as Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts and his “Short Term” star Brie Larson.

But in Cretton’s hands, this fact-based tale of an oddball, destitute upbringing rings false. It’s based on a woman’s complicated personal recollections of her traumatic childhood, and yet it feels like a cloying, one-note Hollywood tale, the beastly trauma all tied up with a pretty bow and de-fanged.

The story centers on Jeannette (Larson), her sisters Lori (Sarah Snook, “The Dressmaker”), Maureen (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and brother Brian (Josh Caras, “Hell on Wheels”), and the parents who kept them out of school and on the run, allowing them to get burned, attacked and otherwise imperiled as they looked the other way. The children are dragged along to a succession of ramshackle living quarters by their dad Rex (Harrelson), a dreamer and ne’er-do-well fueled by a steady stream of alcohol, and mom Rose Mary (Watts), who paints beatifically as her children beg for food.

Rex is belligerent with authority and insists that each place they move to will be better. It never is. Essentially, these two able-bodied adults abdicate their responsibility as parents and jeopardize their children’s lives repeatedly. Rex spends hours, usually drunk, drawing plans for a glass castle. He rarely works. Rose Mary sits at her easel and ignores the world around her, filling each of their dilapidated dwellings with her artwork. Their fights are knock-down, drag-out affairs.

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In one scene, the kids haven’t eaten for three days. When they line up and complain that they’re starving, Rex takes a few dollars squirreled away by Rose Mary ostensibly to buy food, then is gone for days on a bender.

Just how many movies do we need about dysfunctional families in which parents do terrible, cruel things to their children and to each other, but are ultimately deemed eccentric, adorable and loving? The fictional list is long and the movies are uneven. (A sampling: “The Family Stone,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Margot at the Wedding,” “This is Where I Leave You,” “Happiness,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “August Osage County.”) Films based on grim, true-life family memoirs (“Running with Scissors,” “Anywhere but Here,” “Mommie Dearest,” “This Boy’s Life”) have generally failed to fully capture the tone of the book. It’s a tricky feat to pull off.

Here, readers will notice that several scenes and plot points were added for the film. And, as often happens in book adaptations, many scenes and key details were left out. In the book, the kids are nearly taken away from the parents (after an incident involving Rex’s pistol). The family escapes the authorities. Also in the book, Rose Mary supports the family with teaching jobs. She suffers from repeated nervous breakdowns. The movie depicts her with one image — constantly painting, reducing Rose Mary to a caricature and far less essential to the story than the mercurial Rex.

Perhaps the biggest failure of the film lies with its emotional tenor and the desire for a redemptive, upbeat ending. It’s the wrong approach entirely. Growing up in harrowing poverty with untrustworthy, neglectful parents is not easily resolved. Wrapping up all the loose ends (and overlooking the painful scars) as simply as the film does feels reductive and insincere.

Forgiveness is an admirable inclination and, certainly, it’s an instinct that many draw upon in order to cope with family dysfunction and human frailty. But portraying alcohol-fueled violence, child endangerment and chronic selfishness in an endearing light is hard to stomach, let alone enjoy.

Larson as the adult Jeannette does a fine job, though nowhere near as good as her portrayals in “Short Term 12” or “Room.” Ella Anderson (“Henry Danger”), the actress who plays Jeannette from about the ages of 9-13, is even better. Her sad-eyed, worried expression and tired resignation convey reservoirs of unspoken angst. Her authentic performance perfectly suits the unstable and upsetting childhood she and her siblings must endure. She’s the highlight of the film. Anderson’s haunted eyes, which look as if they’ve lived 50 years, will stay with the viewer long after the credits roll.

If only Cretton had found a way to make this Jeannette the main focus of the story, rather than following the adult Jeannette to her career (as a gossip columnist), marriage to a wealthy New York businessman and eventual embracing of her negligent mother and abusive father.

The book, as written by Walls, felt illuminating. As it’s been translated to the screen, it feels exploitative and false. Perhaps this is partially due to the perspective of screenwriters Cretton and Andrew Lanham. The focus of the film becomes Rex and his fickle charm and instability. The final third is all about Jeannette’s coming to terms with this brutal man, embracing her familial bond.

Cretton and Lanham whitewash his callous, unhinged behavior and try to make him into a character that’s benignly stubborn and intolerant of boredom and bureaucracy. They try to render him cute. And Harrelson does his best to pull it off. But it simply doesn’t work.

If they were going to embellish from the original book, as they did in several questionable instances, perhaps they might have explored Rex’s character taking responsibility for his failings. A throwaway sentence on his deathbed is not enough. “I got a lot to regret about my life,” is the closest Rex comes to an apology.

(Interestingly, Cretton and Lanham also co-wrote this year’s “The Shack,” starring Octavia Spencer and Sam Worthington, which explores faith and forgiveness following a tragedy.)

At one point, an angry Jeannette insists: “We were never a family. We were a nightmare.” “The Glass Castle” welcomes us to her nightmare. It’s an unpleasant cinematic trip, a complicated experience approached in much too facile a way to be truly affecting.