Jeannette Walls’ nomadic, freewheeling childhood was often a dream — except when it was a nightmare. The journalist wrote about her unorthodox upbringing, which left her scarred, both literally and figuratively, in her 2005 memoir “The Glass Castle,” which is now a film starring Oscar-winner Brie Larson.
The movie begins in 1989, with Jeannette working as a gossip columnist for New York Magazine. Perfectly coifed and perpetually in pumps, she’s the 1980s ideal of the female professional who has it all, right down to her Wall Street fiance (Max Greenfield). One night, sitting in the back seat of a taxi on her way home from a fancy dinner, she notices a woman rummaging through garbage cans. Just then, a man emerges from the shadows and starts yelling at her driver. These two, we learn, are her mother and father - now squatters living on the Lower East Side. Although she still keeps in touch with them, Jeannette isn’t entirely sure that she wants to.
Crosscutting between scenes set in the present day and flashbacks to Jeannette’s childhood, the movie shows us what looks, at first blush, like a romantic adventure. Jeanette and her three siblings are home-schooled, because, as their father, Rex (Woody Harrelson), declares, “You learn by living.” The family is constantly on the move, piling into a station wagon and heading, seemingly, wherever the wind takes them. At one point, Rex pulls off a desert road and the kids’ artist mother (Naomi Watts) spots a Joshua tree that she feels a deep need to paint.
Get comfortable, Rex tells the kids - we’ll be sleeping here tonight.
Ella Anderson, who plays the 10-year-old Jeannette, does a lovely job portraying a starry-eyed daughter who idolizes her father. And Rex’s appeal is clear: He’s a charismatic dreamer with a brilliant streak. (The film’s title refers to his pipe dream of building an all-glass mansion for the family to live in.) He seems to know a little bit about everything, including all the ways that “the system,” as he calls it, has worked against his family.
Slowly, though, it becomes clear that he’s also a cruel and abusive drunk whose idea of teaching his daughter how to swim is throwing her in the deep end - again and again. The real reason he keeps uprooting the family is that he can’t hold down a job, and he has been avoiding bill collectors.
Inevitably, Jeannette begins to notice, as children will, that the cracks in the facade have become crevasses. Her transformation provides the movie’s most poignant turn of events, despite - or perhaps because - of the fact that it’s conveyed more subtly than the drama’s big emotional set pieces. Eventually, her growing awareness hardens into bitterness, which is how Jeanette ends up in Manhattan looking like Career Girl Barbie.
The movie’s past and present narratives are like two trains running in opposite directions. As a child, Jeannette comes to realize that her father isn’t a god. The question is: Will she come to understand, as an adult, that he’s also not a monster?
Any coming-of-age movie set in such a dysfunctional environment is going to have its tearjerking moments. And director Destin Daniel Cretton (who previously worked with Larson on “Short Term 12”) knows how to deploy slow-motion and piano for maximum sentiment. But the movie often undercuts itself by spelling things out rather than hinting at them, belaboring emotions and ideas to ensure that the audience understands what the characters are feeling and thinking.