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The Glass Castle Review

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

The Glass Castle poster

It happens, too often, with memoirs of harsh, unpredictable childhoods adapted for the screen. Forty pages into a book like "Angela's Ashes" or "This Boy's Life" you may be riveted and eager for more, whereas 20 minutes into a well-meaning eternity of a film version, you may be thinking: Lock these parents up.

That's not a charitable thought, and author Jeannette Walls exercised no such reductive judgment when she wrote her eloquent, breathlessly readable memoir, "The Glass Castle." In revisiting her early life as one of four resourceful children dragged from town to town, state to state by a recklessly exuberant, violently alcoholic father and a bohemian artist mother, Walls told a story of serious (and funny) astonishments, living above and below but mostly below the poverty line a few months at a time. Eventually the Walls family settled (geographically though not emotionally) in Welch, W.Va., the hometown of her father, Rex.

Now comes the film version. Destin Daniel Cretton of "Short Term 12" directed and, with Andrew Lanham, co-wrote the adaptation. There's no one big thing wrong with it. It's a matter of hundred smaller things not quite trusting the audience.

Walls began her 2005 memoir with an irresistible first line, evoking the time of her life when she'd gotten out of West Virginia and become a popular if conflicted gossip columnist for New York magazine: "I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster." In the late 1980s, Walls' parents were squatters in a tenement building on Manhattan's Lower East Side, so they could be closer to their New York-relocated offspring. (One daughter ended up in Los Angeles.) This came after long periods of homelessness.

The film begins with the adult Jeannette, played by Brie Larson, in a taxi and gazing out the window when she spies her Dumpster-diving mother, Rose Mary, played by Naomi Watts. For clarity's sake the film also includes her father in this brief prologue. Woody Harrelson portrays this dominant, unstable force in Jeannette's world, and the casting's right in one way -- Harrelson is a whiz at tornadolike good ol' boys who can't be trusted -- and familiar to a fault in another. The perpetually busy Harrelson must work twice as hard to surprise an audience with anything he does these days. And judging from photos and video included in the film's end credits, the real Rex Walls had more of a Bryan Cranston straight arrow-gone-crooked quality; Harrelson's a juiced-up wild hare from the get-go, and the performance becomes wearying.

Cretton reorders the story so that "The Glass Castle" intercuts between Jeannette's childhood and her later New York life, with a fiance in finance (Max Greenfield) who's plainly not right for her. The glass castle of the title refers to the pipe dream of a home Rex tells his children he'll build someday, and never does. More obliquely it indicates Jeannette's extreme remodeling of her own life, once she fled her parents in West Virginia, before they too fled.

At age 3 Jeannette suffered serious burns in a cooking accident while her mother was painting in the next room. (She's considerably older in the movie, lest audiences bail immediately .)

Soon afterward, Rex uproots the family. "This runnin' around is only temporary," Harrelson's Rex says in a way you know is a lie. Back in the station wagon they go. Again and again. The audience winces through much of "The Glass Castle" as the Wallses suffer indignation heaped upon child endangerment. The script works very, very hard to affirm a loving bond between the grown Jeannette and her increasingly vulnerable father.

This is the question for writers and directors charged with someone's life: How rough, how true, should it be in the movie? A better, harder-edged version of "The Glass Castle" probably wouldn't have had much of a chance at multiplex success. Between the pushy, relentless optimism of composer Joel P. West's score, and the decision to interweave the adult Jeannette's life with her earlier years (keeping Larson front and center), the movie struggles to find a tone, a rhythm.

The best performances cut through the uncertainty. As Jeannette in her middle years (three performers split the duties among each of the Walls children), Ella Anderson has some fine, quietly concentrated scenes with Harrelson, pleading with him to quit drinking. As Rex's mean, thwarted mother, Robin Bartlett does a lot in a few short, sharp scenes. (The movie eliminates the real Erma's virulent racism.) As for Watts, she never really gets to establish or sustain whatever made Rose Mary tick. In real life, Jeannette's mother now lives with her on a horse farm, away from the city; the end credits show us this as well.

You watch the movie, and you wonder: What was this life like, really? That's a sign of a movie not quite answering the question.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking).

Running time: 2:07

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