IF YOU READ the blurb put out by Ster Kinekor for Destin Daniel Cretton’s The Glass Castle, you may go into the movie theatre expecting to be uplifted by a kind of clichéd rags to riches yarn about reaching for one’s dreams. It is so much more and so much less than this.
Based on the life story of New York Times journalist, Jeannette Walls, this profoundly tough tale of so-called hillbillies in West Virginia, and utter, grotesque poverty is about the horror of shame and the love of a parent and it is incredibly difficult to watch, but more difficult to take the decision to walk out. From the get go, you are assailed with horrendous scenarios that involve an amateur painter not having the inclination to feed her child, which results in utter catastrophe. And things ricochet in a range of horrifying and deeply disappointing directions – disappointing for the children, that is – after that.
But more than a tale about the child in question – Jeannette Walls – played with a great deal of adult nuance by child performer Ella Anderson, and more than an engagement with what has become something of a blanket term ‘dysfunctionality’, the story opens the net wide to the complicated rough and tumble that comes of raising children in the shadow of abuse without the constraints of formal education. It’s not a story of abuse, in the conventional sense, though there are mysteries and red herrings when it comes to things that go on behind closed doors, and is premised on the way in which young children can recognise and engage with deep moral conflict.
Rex Walls (Woody Harrelson) is a man with instinctive knowledge. We don’t know if he has been educated, but we discover that he comes of a place of abject degradation. The son of an uncompromisingly horrendous woman named Erma (Robin Bartlett), he has glorious extravagant dreams to build a house made of glass. He’s married to an amateur hobbyist of a painter called Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), and together they have four beautiful children. And think dirty mattresses and hand-me-down clothes, think littlies going to bed with dirty feet, snotty noses and empty stomachs; think power shifting between a daddy and his little girl in ways that force the child into the adult’s proverbial shoes, and you have the general, harrowing picture.
But as the foundation of the eponymous Glass Castle, dug by the children with much glee, turn into a repository for domestic rubbish, and as Rex’s propensity to drink fills up his soul and empties the fridge, you realise this is not a tale about fulfilling dreams at all. It’s one that averts cliché in a sophisticated and complex way. And it’s about one that engages with the demons in the belly and celebrates a man who is an unhero. Creating detours through and around Joseph Campbell’s classic structure of the hero myth, the tale is not even a cautionary one – as it reaches closure, you realise the historical depth it embraces, and the sense of a truth without a moral embraced in obviousness that it offers.
And yes, the rags to riches element features, seeing Jeannette (Brie Larson plays her, as an adult) grow into a sophisticated young woman, having constructed a life for herself out of the ruins she’s left with. Journalism becomes her way out of the morass of her childhood, but there are heavy prices she pays along the way. She’s appropriately highly finished in her sense of physical appearance, a sharp tune from the ‘adventurous’ values with which she had been raised.
Beautifully directed, with narrative transitions that segue with wisdom and sensitivity, the work turns in narrative circles and the associations are potent and deeply satisfying to watch. You do, however, emerge from this complicated tale of victory and loss with a troubled heart and a tear-driven face.
- The Glass Castle is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and performed by Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, Ella Anderson, Chandler Head, Max Greenfield, Josh Caras, Charlie Shotwell, Iain Armitage, Sarah Snook, Sadie Sink, Olivia Kate Rice, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Shree Crooks, Eden Grace Redfield, Robin Bartlett, Joe Pingue, A J Henderson, Dominic Bogart, Chris Gillett, Tessa Mossey, Brenda Kamino, Vlasta Vrana, Andrew Shaver, Sandra Flores, Francesca Barcenas, Bianca Bellange, Izabel Kerr, Darrin Baker, Kyper Harper, Sarah Camacho, Alanna Bale, Ray Adams, John Mullins, Sabrina Campilii and Ross Partridge, and a support cast including Brian, Jeannette, Lori, Rex and Rose Mary Walls. It is written by Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham based on the book by Jeannette Walls and is designed by Joel P West (music), Brett Pawlak (cinematography), Ronna Kress (casting), Sharon Seymour (production), Joy Cretton and Mirren Gordon-Crozier (costumes). Release date: September 1 2017.