Whatever you do, don't be in a hurry to hightail it out of the theater after seeing Destin Daniel Cretton's film of Jeanette Walls' huge bestselling memoir "The Glass Castle." You might well be because the movie is, at times, very difficult to watch--such is the pain and audience discomfort at this tale of acute parental dysfunction and the unavoidable abuse suffered by their children.
After the film story has been well told and reality and redemption have been comfortably hooked up for movie purposes, you see photos and films of the real Rex and Rose Mary Walls. Rose Mary is a good deal plainer than Naomi Watts, who plays her, and Rex is taller and handsomer than Woody Harrelson. It only underlines how uncommonly fine the acting is by Brie Larson as their daughter Jeanette and, especially, Harrelson as Rex.
Stories of horrendous family delusion and the children who suffer are often perceived to be huge occupational opportunities by actors and, to some extent, they're right. The cost, though, is very steep indeed.
Mark Ruffalo was terrific as a bipolar father in "Infinitely Polar Bear" but the movie was too tough for many to watch enjoyably (me, for instance.) So, too, no matter how moving it becomes, is this one. Anyone expecting a movie as rich and enjoyable as the hugely underrated "Captain Fantastic" which starred Viggo Mortensen as another enormously brilliant and nomadic father with a large family, is in the wrong pew of the wrong church.
Jeanette Walls' memoir spent many years on bestseller lists. When that happens people line up to turn those memoirs into movies. Fresh from Oscardom, Jennifer Lawrence spent years trying to develop Walls' memoir into this movie. Instead, it was her Oscar successor Larson with writer/director Cretton who succeeded.
It is Harrelson, though, whose many years being almost great, add up to a long time being deserving of the superb year he's having, what with his chilly underplaying in "War of the Planet of the Apes" and now his role here as a deeply disturbed and brilliant alcoholic father.
Rex Walls, in his daughter's tale, was a brilliant man. And when he wanted to be, he was a brilliant and great father. But he was also a hopeless alcoholic who was contemptuous of everything resembling ordinary middle-class life. So was his wife who refused to work but instead painted all day. It meant a nomadic and often homeless existence barely one step ahead of authorities and debt collectors. When they wound up in the home of his parents in Welch, West Virginia, they took a cabin on the outskirts of the town without heat or electricity.
The details in Wells' book are far more harrowing--the Hershey bar her mother hid in her bed when her four children were starving, the snakes and rats in their house, along with the garbage piled haphazardly in the yard. (In this movie, foodlessness leads to kids eating butter mixed with sugar. Actual starvation is stated which is equated with "shown." Another movie would have done it differently.)
There are other differences. In the key opening scene, the book says "I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster." In the movie, it is her father, a change you'll understand when you consider the dramatic curve of everything else.
What you see is often difficult to watch. No matter how adoring and eloquent and full of information Walls father can be, his alcoholism is the family's hopeless obstacle 24/7 for him, as much as for his misbegotten kids. There is no joy in living like this, as there was in "Captain Fantastic." The family's guiding fantasy is The Glass Castle Dad is going to build, the one he is always drawing and planning.
I know from the book reviewers and interviewers who have written about Walls' book for The Buffalo News that my concerns about the story are commonplace. One reviewer called it "a stomach-curdling story of manipulation and physical neglect" and wondered aloud if the family's accommodations weren't a form of "Stockholm Syndrome." Dilution onscreen doesn't always help.
The kids all survived. Walls went to Barnard and became a writer of celebrity journalism for New York Magazine and MSNBC, amid a consistently escalating career in New York media. She has since written two novels and married for the second time. She lives in Texas with her husband and her mother.
"The Glass Castle"
Three out of four stars
Woody Harrelson, Brie Larson and Naomi Watts in adaptation of Jeanette Walls' bestselling memoir of her acutely dysfunctional childhood. 127 minutes. Rated PG-13 for language and family cruelty.