Director Destin Daniel Cretton has built a body of work that takes a magnifying glass to the individual surviving within a group. In “Short Term 12,” which launched Brie Larson and Lakeith Stanfield into stardom, Cretton examined the ecosystem of humans living and working in a long-term foster care facility. His third feature, an adaptation of Jeanette Walls’ 2005 memoir, “The Glass Castle,” examines the tale of a similarly disadvantaged group.
“The Glass Castle” chronicles Walls’ unconventional and destitute childhood. She and her siblings were shepherded around the country by her parents, a pair of dysfunctional dreamers, before the family landed for a longer spell in Welch, W.Va. Cretton shakes up the structure, interspersing childhood flashbacks with Jeanette (Brie Larson) in 1989, struggling to balance her life as a big city writer and accept her family.
Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts take on the roles of the parents, Rex and Rose Mary. Harrelson pours himself into the role of the charismatic and manipulative trickster; he’s a man who dreamed big but never escaped his personal demons. Watts is a manic, passionate artist who perhaps shouldn’t have been a mother, her dedication to her work resulting in negligence toward her children.
Walls’ memoir is powerful in its overwhelming repetition of the highs and lows of her childhood, a roller coaster she can’t get off. Her story here feels compressed, and Cretton’s delicate subtlety doesn’t quite fit this material.
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Larson, who expresses a kind of repressed ferocity, is only let off the leash sparingly, reined in by her character’s tightly pulled hair and fancy airs. Her younger self, as played by Anderson, proves to be the most compelling iteration of Jeanette, at her most raw and trusting of her father’s wiles, before she learns to close off and protect herself from his manipulations.
Eventually, “The Glass Castle” comes into focus. Its message is universal. Our families may be horribly flawed. Our parents might be toxic and make horrible, dangerous mistakes. But there is no greater self-acceptance than fully accepting who you are, where you come from, and what made you. For Jeannette Walls, that is a pair of dreamers and drunks, and a close-knit group of siblings who survived against all odds, compressing coal into diamonds.
‘The Glass Castle’
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking. 2:07. Fayette, Hamburg, Nicholasville.