Glass can be used to make a stunning mosaic or can be dangerous, leaving permanent scars. Jeannette Walls' life was full of both. In her bestselling 2005 memoir, The Glass Castle, which spent a stunning 261 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, Walls chronicled her up-until-then hidden past of abuse, poverty and shame and her unlikely climb to become one of the most celebrated gossip columnists in New York City--she wrote for New York magazine and USA Today in the late 1980s and early '90s. Earlier this month, Walls told the The Los Angeles Times she had been warned a movie adaptation of her memoir might "Hollywoodize it" by smoothing out its edges. She quickly added that she was flattered anyone would even want to turn her story into a film.
"It was, I had thought, a shameful story," Walls told the Times. "I didn't think people would understand. I was so wrong."
For director/screenwriter Destin Daniel Cretton, this is only his second feature film—his directorial debut was the fabulous 2009 independent Short Term 12—and he has done a masterful job adapting The Glass Castle, jagged edges and all. Brie Larson, who portrays Wells, starred in Short Term 12, giving a breakthrough performance that, in large part, set the stage for her 2015 Oscar-winning performance in Room. Cretton and Larson are reunited in The Glass Castle, in which Larson delivers proof of why she's among the most sought-after actresses in Hollywood.
In the opening moments of The Glass Castle, we meet a 20-something Walls in 1980, when she was penning must-read gossip and rubbing elbows with the Manhattan elite. One night, when the taxi she's in is stopped at a red light, Walls sees a woman picking through garbage. Walls' face goes blank when she recognizes the woman: It's her mother. Walls slumps down into the seat and we flash back to a past she tried to bury—flashbacks to Walls' childhood happen often in the film, but not so often that we lose the thread of the present. In one early scene, we see a three-year-old Walls begging her mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) for something to eat, but Rose Mary, who is almost always painting, is more interested in her art than her family's needs, including one of her children's hunger pangs.
"Would you rather me make some food that will be gone in an hour, or finish this painting which will last forever?" Rose Mary asks three-year-old Jeanette. When the tiny girl reaches for a stool and grabs a lighter to ignite the gas burner on the stove, the impending danger is almost palpable. As the child matter-of-factly drops a few hot dogs into a pot of boiling water, flames from the stove catch her dress and turn it into a ball of fire, which results in a blanket of scars across half of Jeannette's body. But the fire causes only some a few of the innumerable scars, many of them hidden, inflicted upon Jeannette and her three siblings at the hands of Rose Mary and their father Rex, portrayed by Woody Harrelson, who balances the charismatic energy of a cockeyed optimist with the raging soul of a domestic terrorist, fueled by alcoholism. The role is a heady one only an actor like Harrelson could have pulled off so perfectly
Rex rails against capitalism, hypocrisy and whatever else angers him, and he's usually hatching what he calls an "escape plan" for his family which usually has law enforcement, child protection or creditors hot on their heels.
"All this running around is only temporary," Rex promises. "Soon, we'll get to work and build our castle." He fills the children's heads with the dream of building a fantastical home, made primarily of glass. The dream of their glass castle shattered as easily real glass and the metaphorical shards left actual long-lasting scars.
"It's just my family's story," Walls told the Times. "It's my hope that by making such an effort to get at the truth, this film will help people understand all the other families out there like mine."
For that reason alone, The Glass Castle is a must-see.