Movie Review: The Glass Castle

Captain Fantastic told the story of a man who decided to raise free range children in the woods, living off the land and off the grid. Viggo Mortensen delivered a striking performance of an unconventional and eccentric father, whose idea of child-rearing raised some pertinent questions for education and society in the modern world. The recent economic recessions and the current world leadership crisis made the story all the more plausible and timely, taking an essentially “alien” family perspective and holding a mirror up to the hypocrisy of the rat race as we know it. Sadly, Destin Daniel Cretton’s adaptation of Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle has arrived in its wake.

Both unconventional family road trip movies, possibly inspired by the independent spirit of Little Miss Sunshine, it feels like Captain Fantastic snuck in and usurped some of the novelty and impact of The Glass Castle. Much like Viggo Mortensen did for Captain Fantastic, Woody Harrelson does for The Glass Castle, taking an essentially co-lead performance shared with Brie Larson and turning it into the film’s main attraction. While he first came to be known for his role in the ’80s sitcom, Cheers, he’s built a strong and respectable career through consistent performances over the decades, becoming one of the most dependable and underrated actors in Hollywood. We get one of his best performances yet, carving out a touching yet pained role as an inventive father, who constantly tries to distract his children from their poverty stricken situation in a similar bent to Life Is Beautiful.

While this is Woody Harrelson’s film, it’s told from a child’s perspective, essentially turning a father daughter relationship into the crux of this biographical coming-of-age drama. We encounter a dysfunctional and nomadic family, whose nonconformist parents keep them perpetually on the move, one step ahead of the law and getting by on the cheap. Flipping back and forth in time between the then present and childhood memories, we get a semblance of a biography with symbolic staying power. An eccentric artist mother and an alcoholic father lead the pack of six in their dilapidated station wagon as a series of misadventures unfold. While it shares the spirit and wonder of Captain Fantastic, the film also encounters some fairly gritty family scenarios as addiction takes hold and some heartbreaking family secrets come to light.

 “So you mean it was just a glass pipe dream?”

The air of nostalgia is peppered with light and dark moments that compel it over its two hour running time. Much like its title, there’s an emotional fragility at play, which makes it seem like everything could come crashing down at any moment. This raw edginess adds intensity to the drama and keeps the story taut as Harrelson’s nuanced performance serves as a central thread. Brie Larson picks this up as a worthy substitute for Harrelson when he’s off-screen, playing his daughter in the present-day to the point that she could have used more screen time. Harrelson’s powerhouse performance is so immense that it almost overshadows Naomi Watts in the sort of supporting role usually reserved for Catherine Keener.

The Glass Castle starts with great energy and heart as we get to know the travelling family band and their modus operandi. As the road trip pacing begins to sputter and the mood starts to darken, the film enters a slight lull as storytelling responsibility is handed over from the past to the present and from Harrelson to Larson. While a bit patchy and slow during this period, the quality of the ingredients are strong enough to sustain the momentum of The Glass Castle into the third act. While it has its flaws, the overall experience is touching and worthwhile based on Harrelson’s kingpin performance.

The bottom line: Emotive