The Glass Castle: Family drama tackles questions of society, freedom, individuality

It’s all a matter of perspective.

The concept of one man’s trash is another man’s treasure comes to the forefront in “The Glass Castle,” Destin Daniel Cretton’s family drama based on Jeanette Walls’ best-selling memoir of the same name.

It’s a tale of a family at odds against itself, father against mother, children against parents, fighting separately but together in a struggle for survival in rural America. Father Rex is a dreamer distrusting of upper class society who longs to have his children experience life rather than be drug through it. Chronic alcoholism and poverty have placed the Walls family in various destitute states for most of their childhood.

“The Glass Castle” floats back and forth, examining Jeanette’s childhood in rural West Virginia and contrasting worldview as an engaged journalist living in a New York City penthouse while her parents squat in an abandoned building. Scenes in both timelines often work well, but there’s a noticeably distinct lack of cohesion in the narrative from start to finish.

As the eldest Jeanette, Academy Award winner Brie Larson delivers a standout performance with her ability to project confidence and inner turmoil simultaneously at the drop of a hat. Each choice Larson makes with the character is subtle and calculated, reflecting her immense understanding of Jeanette and the angst she feels inside.

Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson has the film’s flashiest turn as Rex, displaying moments of brilliance in the quietest moments of “Glass Castle.” When Harrelson allows Rex to be small and present in the moment, there’s an immense heart and charm to the portrayal that it’s nearly impossible not to fall in love with. Contrast that with Rex’s large displays of drunken bravado where Harrelson teeters towards the edge of caricature and audiences can easily disengage from any redemption arc Rex might travel down in the course of the film.

Third-billed in a role that could have easily underutilized her talents, Academy Award nominee Naomi Watts sparkles in limited screen time as the conflicted, but ever joyful matriarch Rose Mary. Likewise, many of the young performers who portray the four Walls children over the course of the film turn in terrific ensemble performances, especially Ella Anderson as young Jeanette and Iain Armitage as youngest Brian.

There’s an elegance to the way Cretton approaches the material visually, allowing audiences to peek into a world where bright colors seem brighter and darkness feels more pitch black.

Cinematographer Brett Pawlak’s poignant framing and camera work do a masterful job of bringing Cretton’s desire to say something about present day America with “The Glass Castle.” The problem is Cretton just doesn’t say what he means.

Cretton brings the most out of his actors in “Glass Castle,” especially Larson, who starred in Cretton’s Sundance hit “Short Term 12.” What doesn’t necessarily work as well for the writer/director is the film’s meandering storyline where every fourth scene falls a little flat.

Perhaps a better cut of the film or some tightening of the script to shave 15-20 minutes off the two-hour running time would elevate the material as a whole and allow the strong performances to shine more.

Regardless, “The Glass Castle” does carry enough weight for Larson to potentially earn another Best Actress nomination after winning in 2016 for “Room.” Supporting nominations for Harrelson and Watts might have been in the cards, though an early release date and mixed reviews for the film will put both on the outside looking in when award season rolls around.

A flawed, but promising family drama, “The Glass Castle” might be fairly accused of playing things too even-handed, failing to scathingly indict the avant-garde lifestyle of the elder Walls or fully embrace a feel good tear-jerker.

But for large budget independent work, “The Glass Castle” features a terrific ensemble cast with dynamic visuals worth seeking out at the theater.

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