Based on Jeannette Walls' memoir, The Glass Castle refers to the fanciful home an impoverished father intends for his family, one with glass walls that welcome natural light during the day and, at night, become a window to the stars. The structure never gets built, but it's the Burj Khalifa of metaphors, a symbol of big dreams and broken promises that rises majestically to the heavens. At one point in Destin Daniel Cretton's leaden adaptation, a young Walls and her three siblings help their father actually dig the foundation. Later, the foundation is filled with garbage. The foundation is their relationship.
As the unifying idea for a memoir, the glass castle has a certain elegance, because the broad truth of it is supported by specific memories that bring depth and dimensionality to the Walls family. But in the journey from page to screen, it's merely the largest in a series of metaphors that have the effect of spoon-feeding insights rather than evoking them. It's one thing for a father to hand his daughter a knife to "fight demons," but another for him to specify that they're inner demons. Cretton falls in love with these writerly totems of turmoil and dysfunction, which have the effect of tidying up the tortured, contradictory emotions that define the bond between father and daughter.
Much like Cretton's affecting indie drama Short Term 12, about the counselors and residents at a facility for at-risk teenagers, The Glass Castle concerns the bonds forged by children under psychological duress. Brie Larson's current ascendence owes much to her performance in the earlier film, and she returns to a similar role as a young adult who masks a secret pain rooted in childhood. As Jeannette, Larson first appears like a cartoon of Reagan-era upward mobility, with an impeccably coiffed updo, pearl earrings and necklaces, and a Wall Street slickster (Max Greenfield) on her arm. Yet the look of a child swimming in adult clothing seems right for Jeannette, who's running so far from her past that she's forgotten who she is and what she wants.
The Glass Castle toggles back and forth between 1989, when Jeannette is logging time as a gossip columnist for New York magazine, and her girlhood and adolescence, when she was living hand-to-mouth in a semi-nomadic family of societal dropouts. With her alcoholic father Rex (Woody Harrelson) unable to hold down a job and her mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) lost in her paintings, Jeannette and her siblings are treated like furniture, tossed in the back of a moving truck whenever their parents need to skip an eviction notice. They eventually settle in the town of Welch, W.Va., but "settle" is a relative term in a home without electricity or running water, and the domestic chaos caused by Rex's flights of fancy and emotional and physical abuse. Jeannette's solution is to take matters into her own hands and work to break the cycle of poverty and violence that grips her family.
The dynamic at play in The Glass Castle resembles films like The Mosquito Coast or Captain Fantastic, where children are held captive to the fanatical ideals of fathers who reject the civilized world. Yet Rex is more troubled than those others, because he lacks the discipline to provide for his family's most basic needs; when his children complain about not eating for three days, he strikes out with their available cash and returns home drunk and empty-handed 10 hours later. Jeannette's enduring faith in him to turn things around, answered by constant disappointment, is a solid emotional core for Cretton to build around.
Though the multiple actresses playing Jeannette limit the impact of Larson's performance — and its believability, too, when she plays her as a conspicuously old-looking teenager—she and Harrelson share the convincing shorthand of people who know best how to hurt each other. In its most affecting moments, The Glass Castle recalls Short Term 12 in bridging the traumas that connect children with their guardians and that all of them struggle to transcend. Jeannette forgives the unforgivable because she knows her father's past and clings to the hope that both of them can find their way to the other side.
Yet Cretton ultimately doesn't trust these observations to speak for themselves, so he lays it on thick with the metaphors, with the prodding score, and with an '80s setting that has the punishing airlessness of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. From the title down, it arrives prepackaged and closed to interpretation, which doesn't do justice to lives defined by instability and a legacy of abuse that spans at least three generations. Such a clean break from the past seems impossible.