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‘The Glass Castle’ makes compelling drama from family turbulence

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Naomi Watts and Woody Harrelson (right) watch over their chaotic clan.
Photo: Lionsgate / Courtesy

Three and a half stars

The Glass Castle Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.

Nothing inspires easier sympathy than children in peril, especially when their parents are the primary threat. Give The Glass Castle credit, then, for making a sincere (if not always successful) effort to complicate its tale of four kids growing up with a flighty, irresponsible mom and an alcoholic dreamer of a dad. Adapted from former gossip columnist Jeannette Walls’ 2005 memoir and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12), the film focuses primarily on the turbulent relationship between Jeannette and her father, and takes pains to emphasize their tender, loving highs just as much as their destructive lows. There’s enough emotional truth here to compensate for the occasional lapses into Hollywood phoniness.

It helps that we know right from the jump that Jeannette, at least, will turn out okay. She’s first seen in 1989, after she’s moved to New York City and made a name for herself in journalism; on the way home from a business dinner with her fiancé (Max Greenfield), she sees her parents—Woody Harrelson plays Rex Walls, opposite Naomi Watts as Rose Mary Walls—scrounging through trash cans on the street. This triggers a series of flashbacks depicting the family’s nomadic, hand-to-mouth existence in West Virginia and elsewhere, as Jeannette (played at younger ages by other actors) and her siblings cope with Rex’s penchant for spending the grocery budget on liquor and aspiring artist Rose Mary’s failure to put down her paintbrush and take care of her brood. Back in 1989, meanwhile, Jeannette struggles with whether or not to let her parents back into her life, after having worked so hard to escape all that they represent.

As in Short Term 12, Cretton (who also wrote the screenplay with Andrew Lanham and Marti Noxon) has a regrettable tendency to fall back on dramatic clichés at crucial moments—a tendency that’s likely amplified in this case by the need to shape a two-hour narrative from fundamentally anecdotal source material. But The Glass Castle’s hokey speeches and manipulative reversals are outnumbered by its piercing moments of alternating bliss and despair. Harrelson gives Rex just the right combination of easygoing charm and frightening ruthlessness, and his rapport with all three of the actors who play Jeannette makes the father-daughter push-pull heartbreakingly credible. One minute, he’s “teaching” her to swim by repeatedly tossing her into a public pool, ignoring her terrified screams; the next, he’s giving her Venus—the whole planet—as a Christmas present, explaining that her descendants can charge people rent when Earthlings inevitably migrate there. Watts gets less to do as the kind but oblivious Rose Mary, but her presence serves as necessary ballast. When she and Rex abruptly start laughing in the middle of an angry physical altercation, that’s this movie in a nutshell.

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