Director: Dustin Daniel Cretton
Stars: Woody Harrelson, Brie Larson, Naomi Watts
Cretton turned heads at the tail end of 2013 with his little indie charmer Short Term 12, a heart-wrenching peek within the world of temporary foster care. The film showcased a host of up-and-coming talents (see Lakeith Stanfield, for example) and provided Brie Larson with the opportunity to show what she’s capable of. Even with her Oscar-winning performance in Room under her belt, it remains her finest role. Now, 4 years later, Cretton and Larson are reunited, which itself is cause for celebration. I was happy to go into The Glass Castle blind, safe under the assumption that I’d be in good hands.
Nothing should be assumed, however. For over the course of two hours and seven minutes, Cretton manages to undo all the good graces earned with his head-turning debut. This is the worst kind of surprise; when a promising talent utterly and totally sticks the landing on his sophomore effort. One can only hope that this is a falter along the journey and not the sign of things to come.
The Glass Castle, based on the memoirs of New York journalist Jeanette Walls, opens with her (Brie Larson) in 1989 sporting period appropriate hair, entertaining at a business dinner with her fiancé David (Max Greenfield). She’s a hit, smart and quick-witted. A real 1980’s go-getter. On the cab ride home the vehicle is harassed by a homeless man; her father Rex (Woody Harrelson). This after she witnesses him and her mother Rose (Naomi Watts) rooting through garbage. She’s on the verge of the New York elite while her family is homeless. What gives!?
Playing out predominantly in a series of protracted flashbacks, we witness key events from Jeanette’s rather unique upbringing. We come to quickly understand that Rex and Rose did not play the parts of conventional parents, but rather pursued a nomadic existence, crisscrossing the country and squatting in vacant properties until they out stayed their welcome, the pair’s brood growing larger at every stop. Jeanette, a middle child of an eventual four, became the apple of her father’s eye; a blowhard drunk who rails constantly against conformity while fulfilling the stereotype of deadbeat dad with every fibre of his being. Rex waxes lyrical plenty of times, dispensing torrents of sub-Captain Fantastic psuedo-bohemian tripe, coming off like a branch of Clinton’s cards that’s also thinking it’s about time to start stocking some wife-beaters.
Zigzagging between the past and the late-80’s present, we’re supposedly given context for not just who Jeanette has become along with her relationship to her parents, but also who those people were and the reasons they made the choices they did. Chiefly this boils down to a history of sexual abuse from Rex’s hillbilly mother, which, if true, is handled with the same tone-deaf approach as every other subject that The Glass Castle thunders into. The script is painfully clumsy, hammering away at any subtlety lest anyone anywhere fail to get the point. But even worse, it simply cannot decide how it feels about Rex, portraying him as monstrous one minute, only to absolve him the next.
This feels like such a compromised betrayal, especially given how Short Term 12 was so emboldened by its condemnation of the abuse of children. That film, though acting within relative safety, bristled with anger embodied by Larson. The Glass Castle approaches the same subject with a grin and a hapless shrug. Being a drunk asshole is fine, it seems, so long as you’ve got a flawed but kooky anti-establishment philosophy to fall back on. I’m sure Rex Wells was a complicated and multifaceted man, but the depiction here doesn’t read that way. Instead it smacks of authorial indecision. And so it goes for the entire project.
That sense of brittle, exposed truth that buoyed Short Term 12 through its more convenient moments is also nowhere in evidence. Something has evidently been lost in translation, because barely anything here rings with any sense of sincerity or realism, be it all that on-the-nose dialogue, the aw-shucks performances (Harrelson and Watts have both been far better elsewhere) or the intrusive score which pushes the audience to step through hoops in case the material itself didn’t already have a boot up your behind. The Glass Castle descends into cheaply earned sentimentality and melodrama within its first fifteen minutes and never recovers. The bells and whistles go off early that this is going to be an almighty misfire, nothing that happens in that increasingly exhausting running time acts as a reversal of fortune.
Larson is good, though due to the framework she’s only in about a quarter of the picture. Credit also to the actress playing her younger self (Ella Anderson) who steadfastly holds her own in comparison and may continue Cretton’s burgeoning trend for fostering new talent. But these two are the film’s only saving graces and they’re not enough to make up for the insufferable swill of good intentions, blunt observations and hackneyed depictions of America’s struggling poor, who broadly come off as, basically, Cletus The Slack-Jawed Yokel.
Rex was the kind of man who would apparently throw his terrified daughter into the deep end of a public pool as a substitute for actual attentive swimming lessons or, when she had raised his ire, leave her undefended against sexual predators to teach her a lesson (fortunately she managed to defend herself). This isn’t inspired ‘anti-establishment’ parenting; it’s called being a dickhead and a bastard. The Glass Castle lionises this mentality under the assumption that family’s family, and therefore anything is forgivable in the end, while simultaneously cataloging a grocery list of abuses and let downs. And all under the pretense of light drama with a saccharine side. The lack of integrity is the biggest slap in the face. The Glass Castle is bad enough to ruin the memory of Short Term 12 right along with it. Who knows what Cretton believes in?