“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.” The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Jeannette Walls’ bestselling memoir laid bare her childhood, being raised by a self-absorbed mother and an alcoholic father. While the couple rationalized their nomadic existence by espousing radical viewpoints and railing against the establishment, they subjected their four children to years of physical and psychological abuse. (The physical abuse didn’t involve violence, but how else can you describe a father letting his children resort to eating butter and sugar while he spends money on liquor?) Jeannette manages to escape that hardscrabble beginning to attend Barnard and become an editor at New York Magazine. (Although being the magazine’s gossip columnist was not the goal she had in mind.) Most grown children endure occasions when they are embarrassed by the presence of their parents. Walls, however, learns her parents are homeless and have been squatting in a building on the Lower East Side.
From L to R: Naomi Watts, Woody Harrelson, Chandler Head,” Iain Ermitage, and Olivia Kate Rice
Brie Larson plays the adult Jeannette, while Chandler Head plays Jeannette as a child, and Ella Anderson, as a young adolescent. Naomi Watts is Rose Mary, Jeannette’s mother whose artistic talent, while mediocre, always comes before caring for her children. On one occasion, Rose Mary’s neglect leads to the young Jeannette sustaining third degree burns while trying to cook hot dogs. But it’s Jeannette’s father who creates the firestorm that surrounds the family. Played with gusto by Woody Harrelson, Rex at his best is an unconventional father who wants to teach his children through their experiences rather than in a classroom. Children, however, need stability and Rex’s inability to hold down a job means the family is always one step ahead of the creditors. Home is often a deserted cabin without electricity or running water.
The title comes from the glass castle that Rex talks about building, a dream that captivates the young Jeannette, but later in life serves as a metaphor for her shattered childhood. As a child, Jeannette is wise beyond her years, able to deal with her father more effectively than her mother. She makes him promise to stop drinking, but his sobriety is short lived. For Rex, the alcohol is a way for him to self-medicate, to forget being sexually abused by his mother. (While staying at Rex’s childhood home, the young adolescent Jeannette saves her brother from a similar fate.)
Naomi Watts and Brie Larson
Jeannette’s parents reappear in her life just as she’s about to announce her engagement to David (Max Greenfield), an investment banker. Jeannette tells Rose Mary she’s engaged during an awkward lunch in a Chinese restaurant. (It’s a terrific scene between the two actresses. Watts as Rose Mary, looking very much the disheveled bohemian, slurps noddles while Larson’s Jeannette, looking prim and proper, regards her mother with disdain.) Although father and daughter have been estranged, Rex knows that David is a bad match for Jeannette. While she defends her choice, deep down she knows her father is right. On several occasions, David entertains important clients and lies about Jeannette’s family, characterizing her father as a inventor working on a method to create clean coal. It’s the worst possible betrayal. For Jeannette, rejecting her father means denying a part of her, too. Walls’ memoir was remarkable for showing tolerance and even affection for her parents. The film attempts to convey those feelings in the last moments of the film.
Parenting is never easy. Mistakes are made and few children make it into adulthood without some scars from growing up. While the family depicted in The Glass Castle is certainly an extreme example, viewers may still relate to the conflicted feelings children have for their parents. This is a film certain to spark many conversations in the days to come.
Photos by Jake Giles Netter
Top photo: Brie Larson