By Julia Rost
Contradiction to the extreme. This is how Jeanette Walls’s ‘The Glass Castle’, based on her eponymous memoirs, beguiles its viewers, shocking and stunning them at the same time.
The film follows the narrative of Jeanette Wall’s (Brie Larsson) unstable childhood alongside three siblings, told by herself as a grown-up gossip columnist in the New York of 1989. Growing up, her life was characterized by constant moves, poverty and neglect due to the very individual parenting approach of her drunk father Rex Walls (Woody Harrelson) and her artist mother Rosemary Walls (Naomi Watts).
The movie switches between flashbacks of Jeanette’s childhood at different ages and her adult life: her engagement to her fiancé and her seemingly stable daily routine, which is, at least on the surface, nothing like her childhood since she now lives in economic abundance.
The movie begins by showing Jeanette inside a taxi passing two people who are digging in the trash. Jeanette is shocked and simultaneously ashamed as she realizes that the bin divers are her parents, who are currently homeless and searching for food. Not wanting them to see her or let other people to notice that she knows them, she tells the taxi driver to keep on driving – and feels terrible afterwards, asking herself if she has lost her roots. Feeling guilty, she arranges a meeting with Rosemary and offers her parents financial support, which is rejected by her mother.
From this point on, the viewer experiences, with the help of several flashbacks, Jeanette’s memories of her childhood, which was characterized by unstable living conditions and the emotional and physical tantrums of her alcoholic father Rex, the necessity of early responsibility for her siblings as her mother often neglected her children, but also an unconventional lifestyle and absolute freedom.
What starts as a romantic way of living – especially due to Rex’s plans to construct a ‘Glass Castle’ for his children (thus the film’s title) – soon turns out to anything but romantic, since they often suffer from hunger because even the little money the family has is spent by Rex for alcohol.
The father often steps out, promising to buy food, and then is gone for several days. What is clear for the viewer is even clearer for the movie family, namely the fact that Rex will just return having wasted the money on his addiction. Still, the film manages to put its viewers into the position of the children, so we refuse to lose hope and keep the initial belief in Rex’s goodness and the family’s prospects.
‘The Glass Castle’ also manages to make us constantly ask whether Rex has something good left in him and simply fails to properly care for his family because of the struggle with his addiction or whether he completely has lost any sense of responsibility and simply wants to feed his ego by keeping his family dependent on him. Soon Jeanette remains the only one left believing in her father. Their special connection is portrayed in a remarkably authentic fashion, especially due to the excellent acting performance of Woody Harrelson and the children actors who play Jeanette. Because of her deep love to her father, it is probably also Jeanette who is eventually the most disappointed of Rex.
But as we learn throughout the movie the failings of her parents have led to Jeanette becoming a resilient, independent and successful woman who is living proof for upward social mobility.
Even though the actual ‘Glass Castle’ is never been built it becomes clear it rather serves as a metaphor as ‘The Journey is the Destination’ and that true faith and willpower can move mountains. The ‘Glass Castle’ portrays not only an unconventional family story but first of all an extraordinary father-daughter-relationship which is awakened by two outstanding actors who manage to produce areal catharsis for the audience by eventually leaving their complicated past behind them and coming to reconciliation and peace.