You know that feeling that comes when a well-told biopic reaches the end and you finally see photos of the real-life figures behind the characters, where you can’t help but marvel at how thoroughly the actors seem to have absorbed the people they’re playing? “The Glass Castle” wraps with one of those slideshows, except this time, the people — New York gossip columnist Jeannette Walls and her family — may as well be aliens, that’s how different the end-credits photos and footage seem from the movie itself.
That’s not to say the two-plus hours that came before haven’t been moving. But there’s a fire behind unconventional patriarch Rex Walls’ eyes — and a sense of tragedy hidden by Rex’s square-jawed, movie-star handsome face — that was completely absent from Woody Harrelson’s otherwise powerful performance as the man who made life so hard for Jeannette and her siblings. And while it’s exciting to see Brie Larson working with “Short Term 12” director Destin Daniel Cretton again, she’s not in the film nearly enough, since so much of Jeannette’s story is told in flashback featuring different actors as her younger self.
There’s a documentary moment there at the end when Jeannette’s mother, the real-life Rose Mary (who seems much closer to the proud, uncompromising woman Naomi Watts has portrayed for the rest of the film), remarks on how Jeannette’s book captured the poetic, paradoxical soul of her father, whereas older sister Lori only resented him for raising them wrong. Such things are all a matter of perspective, and so too is Cretton’s adaptation, which tells a story not unlike last year’s terrific “Captain Fantastic” — about another family of anti-establishment off-the-grid squatters — but does so from the POV of a daughter who carries both the psychic and physical scars of that experience, who spent her early years packing up and moving on whenever her father ran afoul of the law or the bill collectors caught up with them.
Early on, Cretton features a scene in which Rex is away (probably on one of his famous drinking binges) and Rose Mary is too busy painting to feed her daughter, whom she orders to go and make her own meal unsupervised. Standing too close to the stove, Jeannette’s dress catches fire, and she winds up in the hospital with third degree burns — an injury that becomes a metaphor for so much of her childhood. For decades she lived with the shame of how she was raised, the reminder of which was branded into her torso, hiding that aspect of her past from others (when asked about her parents, she would lie, rather than admit that they were essentially homeless, scraping by in the same city where she had become a successful gossip columnist).
“The Glass Castle” catches up with Walls at the moment in her life when she finally came to terms with her father (which has taken a bit of creative fictionalization, but remains remarkably true to the book): She’s engaged to a successful investment banker (Max Greenfield) and looks like a character out of “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” with her fancy high-society hairdo, pearl necklace and stiff-shouldered blouse. No one would guess that this charming, seemingly cultured woman once ate a stick of butter and sugar because there had been nothing else in the house — a house without running water or electricity.
The title of Walls’ memoir refers to the house that Rex was always promising to build for them — yet another metaphor, this one for the big dreams and alleged brilliance of a man who rejected society’s group-think rules, self-teaching his children (three girls and a boy) while living in what others might think of as squalor, poverty and ignorance. Walls comes right out and describes Rex as “brilliant” at one point, though that’s one dimension of the character Harrelson never quite captures — whereas crazy, drunk and capable of howling like a wolf in public situations all come easy. On one hand, Rex wanted his kids to be independent thinkers — as when he quite literally threw Jeannette in the deep end so she would learn to swim — but he never once permitted them to question his authority.
By any standard, Walls has reason to be resentful of her upbringing, but she also has the humility to recognize that Rex and Rose Mary’s unique approach to parenting is at least partly responsible for shaping her into who she is today. It’s not easy trying to navigate that paradox in retelling her story, and yet, it’s the aspect to which Cretton seems best suited: The director has a deeply empathetic sensibility, which comes through in his approach. Despite Rex’s temper and his undeniable capacity for cruelty, he’s not a villain, but a complex human being.
And yet, unlike the stunningly realistic “Short Term 12,” which was directly informed by Cretton’s work with foster kids, the details here don’t come from his own experience. Rather, they’re lifted from Walls’ book and as a result feel too obviously reenacted — the way the wigs and dye jobs (nearly all the characters are redheads) are meant to lend authenticity, but instead create a level of artifice. Something similar happened to Nick Flynn’s “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City,” in which the author stumbled across his estranged dad while working in a Boston homeless shelter. Adapted for the screen as “Being Flynn,” the movie wound up serving as an homage to a beautifully written book, instead of an emotional story in its own right.
Here, we understand that her book was meaningful to many, but it’s not terribly engaging as told. We know she survived the ordeal, so there’s no suspense, and it’s hard to be invested in whether or not she reconciles with Rex before his death. Cretton captures the incidents of Walls’ childhood (too many of them, to be honest, as the film really ought to be half an hour shorter), but struggles to connect them to the grown woman Larson plays in the present. Here is a successful New York gossip columnist whose own story was juicier than practically any she uncovered in her day job, and yet, despite its running time, it offers at best a fragmented portrait of how she was personally shaped by having a father as unique as Rex Walls.