By D. Andres
127 minutes of raw family memories, full of loss and violence, in order to find forgiveness, acceptance and one’s own identity
The movie The Glass Castle, based on Jeanette Walls memoir, which was published in 2005, leaves the viewer with a mixture of feelings. For the unprepared spectator, the film is an enumeration of shouting, drinking, moving places, broken dreams and uncared for children. The most powerful message being that love works as superglue and is the underlying force of family bonding. This dark, dysfunctional family drama hits American society right at the core, and is nothing for weak nerves and people struggling with similar ghosts from the past and present.
From the perspective of a successful adult journalist, the audience is confronted with the denial of a past that leaves a black spot on the perfect American Dream career of Jeannette Walls. The many flashbacks, in which Jeannette’s and her siblings’ upbringing are chronologically recorded, explain why she behaves the way she does. The film starts off with Jeannette in a taxi on her way back from a posh business meeting with her fiancé, when she witnesses her parents garbage diving. She doesn’t stop and desperately clings onto the left overs which she took with her from the restaurant. Out of sympathy and guilt, she agrees to meet with her mother and to join a family get-together at her parent’s place (a.k.a. a rundown house they just took possession of). Everything gets out of hand because her father doesn’t approve of her choice of men. Eventually, halfway through the film, she is confronted with the terminal illness of her father. Everyone keeps urging her to go and talk to him, but she stubbornly refuses, unwilling to battle ghosts and broken dreams of the past
Her reaction is quite understandable considering her upbringing. The movie confronts the viewer with a family that’s faced with abuse, violence and poverty. The father is an irresponsible, dishonest and hopeless man. Faced with a selfish mother, who would rather paint than put food on the table, the children have to learn early on to fend for themselves. If they do not do so, they would most likely be stuck in the same vicious circle of drugs, violence and poverty. They stick together and save up every penny they earn in order to escape their so-called home and to get a better education and therefore a better future.
All the shouting, drinking, abuse and hopelessness may be quite overwhelming for the viewer. However, there’s a bigger problematic underlying all the misery. The Glass Castle can be compared with other works such as Hillbilly Elegy (book, 2016), Bastard out of Carolina (book, 1992) and Eminem’s 8 Mile (film, 2002). All of them deal in some way with the problematic issue of white trash by retelling and reflecting on personal experiences.
Whiteness studies is a new field that rose to importance in the 90’s. It is concerned with the legacy of white superiority and class consciousness, especially in the U.S.. Many markers and stereotypes can be discovered in Walls memoir. One example is the connection drawn between Jeanette’s present and past her denial and sparse contact to her parents is one example. It can be explained by summarising Isenberg who recently published her book in the field ofwhiteness studies and white trash. On her account, Jeanette represents what many of the few ‘survivors’ do: once being a made man, you cut all ties and avoid your heritage. A well-known phenomena of politician who use their past only to gain credibility and votes. In the case of Jeannette Walls memoire, the conflict is embodied by her relationship to her father, a tense bond marked by lost trust and confidence. And this sums up the conflict of the film quite perfectly.
Keeping this information in mind, the film doesn’t simply represent a single family struggling, seemingly incapable of living a normal live. It rather reflects on a large group of Americans. The film criticises current politics and social standards and at the same time show empathy for the minority. Beautifully underlined by a (once again) drunk Woody Harrison (known as Haymitch from the Hunger Games) who plays the father, and Academy Award and Golden Globe winner Brie Larson (best known from Kong: Skull Island) as Jeannette Walls, the audience is caught in a whirlwind of innocent fatherly love and shattered dreams, relationships and a childhood as fragile as the Glass Castle her father always wanted to build. But never got around to.