The Glass Castle is a study in the power of family ties—and the resilience of children to overcome even the harshest of circumstances. I had sort of a crazy childhood. Like Rex Walls in The Glass Castle, my dad was brilliant and charismatic, generous and funny. He was also a womanizing alcoholic, too proud to take a nine-to-five job and rarely able to make ends meet. But Woody Harrelson, who plays Rex in this film, based on Jeanette Walls's best selling memoir and opening Aug. 11, makes my dad look like Father of the Year.
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Anyone who read the book knows the story of Walls and her siblings’ remarkable ability to survive a childhood of neglect, squalor, and sometimes abuse—and come out not only alive but for the most part thriving and with their parental relationships still intact. Basically, Rex and Rose Mary Walls (played by a very convincing Naomi Watts) are sadly unfit to have children. Enabling each other’s dysfunctions as they constantly uproot their family (usually to avoid paying rent or electricity bills), the couple and their children lead a hardscrabble, hand-to-mouth existence out of cars, shacks, and tents.
Played by a perfectly cast Harrelson (who could nab an awards nomination), Rex is a street-smart charmer with a major alcohol problem, distrust of authority, and paranoia. He can’t keep a job, thinks the FBI is after him, and has delusions of grandeur, believing he will one day build his family a glass castle. He even has the blue prints to "prove it." Despite his shortcomings, his children, especially Jeanette, respect him—at least for a while, as he teaches them life lessons, stresses the importance of sticking together as a family (which, to him, includes the tradition of howling like a wolf pack), and parcels out enough affection and optimism to keep them attached.
In one scene, lying in the snow and gazing up at the stars, Rex sweetly convinces a young Jeannette (played excellently by Ella Anderson) that he has bought her the planet Venus as a Christmas present. In another, he tells her, “We’re not like other people. We’ve got fire burning in our bellies.” And he affectionately calls her his “mountain goat.”
But then he fails to provide food, installs his children in rodent infested houses without plumbing or heat, steals money from Jeanette’s piggy bank to buy booze, forces her to sew up his cut face after a brawl, turns a blind eye when they get molested, dangles their mother out of a second-story window after a fight, and never quite gets around to building that glass castle.
Still, his kids so deeply want to believe he’s their hero that they forgive his transgressions and buy into his assertion that they may be different from other people but it’s because they are special. He masks their misfortunes as adventures. Sleeping in tents is a fun camp out! Showering at the public pool is cool! Butter and sugar for lunch is exotic! This is both a blessing and a curse. For a while, it keeps Jeanette and her siblings sane and happy, but as they mature, they begin to feel betrayed. They realize that their father’s distrust and scorn of societal norms and what he derides as “mundane” is actually a cover-up for his own inadequacies and inability to succeed in the real world.
“They’re never going to take care of us,” a teenage Jeannette finally tells her siblings one night. “We have to go to school and start saving money so we can get out of here." Meanwhile, her self-absorbed mother, Rose Mary, is an unfulfilled artist who loves Rex and her family but resents them for keeping her from her true calling.
In one scene, when a very young Jeanette tells her mother she’s hungry, Rose Mary replies, “Would you rather me make you lunch that will be gone in an hour? Or make this painting that will last a lifetime?” Jeannette then pulls up a stool to the stove and cooks a hot dog but burns herself so badly that she's rushed to the hospital—where she is heartbreakingly excited to finally get three meals a day.
The film unfolds mainly through flashbacks, opening with Jeannette in 1989 as a twenty-something (played brilliantly by Brie Larson) at a fancy dinner with her fiancé David (Max Greenfield), a hot-shot entrepreneur, and his clients. We get the feeling something is up when she asks the waiter to box up her leftovers as well as the clients'. David quickly explains that she’s just kidding and tells their guests that her “dad’s an engineer and her mom’s an artist.”
After the meal she admonishes him: “When it comes to my family, let me do the lying.” Soon, we see Jeanette passing through a sketchy neighborhood and a homeless man approach her taxi, while a woman digs through a trash bin nearby. We later find out they were her parents—at that time living as squatters in New York. And that’s when the film begins to explain how she—and they—got here.
The most remarkable thing about this story isn’t so much the dysfunctional, narcissistic parents or Jeanette’s impoverished childhood but the fact she and her siblings were able to survive and escape, one by one winding up in New York City.
Jeannette managed to attend Barnard College and become a successful journalist and author. In one scene, Rex, who accuses her of “selling out,” nonetheless shows up to campus and dumps $950 in cash on her bed, along with a mink coat he won in a poker game, to help her pay for tuition. Once again, just as she is ready to write him off, he does something to pull her back in.
Part of Jeanette’s journey is learning to overcome her shame, reconcile her tumultuous past with her present and be honest about it with herself and others. Late in the film, after her dying father tells her, “You’re not like me, Mountain Goat. You’re not afraid,” she replies, “I am like you, and I’m glad.”
The fact that Jeanette continued to love her parents despite their failings, and was able to recognize how they helped shape her into the person she is, illustrates the lasting power of family—no matter how frayed the ropes may be.