REVIEW: The Glass Castle

12 08 2017

There’s a strain of thought currently dominating the conversation around class in America, and it finds best expression in J.D. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.” To loosely sum it up, the argument is that rural white Americans possess a kind of misunderstood nobility that’s mistaken for a lack of sophistication by outsiders. When given a ladder to success rather than treated with scorn, these working-class whites can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Destin Daniel Cretton’s film adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ searingly personal memoir “The Glass Castle,” thankfully, flies in the face of all that hogwash. Without providing any kind of sociological lecture on structural poverty, he and co-writer Andrew Lanham poke at something profound in their portrayal of some unconventional (and, yes, dangerous) parenting tactics. The ideals of freedom, independence and self-reliance, so baked into the American psyche, are inventions of a wealthy class of men for other landed men. When followed by people without resources and social standing, it can lead to dangerous ends.

One of the first times we see Jeannette’s father Rex, played with usual spitfire intensity by Woody Harrelson, he’s going on a screed against the professional class of doctors for trying to wield their knowledge as a tool to extort hard-working people into paying for expensive treatment. They need to treat young Jeannette for a burn. She received that burn because she had to feed herself while her mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) painted, and her dress caught fire on the stove. It’s a moment of pure negligence and irresponsibility in the Walls family. Yet Rex successfully convinces himself that the real issue is not their lack of oversight; instead, it’s the judgment from a class that deems themselves superior when his parenting style is simply an expression of his American values. Sometimes that comes with collateral damage, and he’s willing to live with that.

An older Rex seen later in the film goes on a similar rant about Reaganite economics, though certainly without naming the source. He picks the booming Wall Street financiers as the target of his rage, seemingly because they reap tremendous profits without producing anything tangible to put out in the world. Rex fails to realize, however, that all his tough talk of hard labor rooted in self-determination is rooted in an empty promise. The big dreams for his family, most obviously manifested in the quixotic fantasy “glass castle” he tells Jeannette he will build, will never come to pass so long as they remain mired in poverty.

That’s not to say the film excuses his behavior or tries to rationalize away the obvious failures of Rex and Rose Mary. He’s a drunk, selfish brute of a father, and it’s possible to draw a direct line between his worst behaviors and the rearing style of his stern mother, Erma. Rose Mary, meanwhile, is a lackadaisical would-be artist who lacks the courage to stop the most egregious failings of her husband. And yet, in spite of all this psychological and physical harm, an adult Jeannette played by Brie Larson can successfully integrate into the kinds of social strata her father deplores.

Jeannette may purge herself of all ties to her family, but she never really sheds their influence. Certain characteristics appear in her personality that are totally missing in that of her financier fiancé. She deplores the idea of waste. She scoffs at conspicuous consumption. On a more negative side, a life spent without a fixed address leaves her feeling like she can never settle into a home. On a more positive side, she sees the damage her parents did to her – and makes the tough decision to love and forgive anyways. It’s a reminder that we can never truly escape the legacy of our parents, but if we try, we can improve upon it.

Cretton resists the obvious “poverty porn” tropes, never gawking at the setting to invoke obvious pity or disgust. He never allows the lessons Jeannette learns from her hardship to cloud the grimness of the situation, either. “The Glass Castle” is unflinchingly straightforward about the reality of indigent Americans, even if it lacks the live-wire rawness of Cretton’s prior feature “Short Term 12.”  He most leaves the flashy techniques behind, apart from one bravura long take encapsulating the chaos that ensues from an explosive fight between Rex and Rose Mary. I’m not sure more would help the film, though. Cretton leaves Walls’ extraordinary story to do the heavy lifting, and that’s sufficient. B+

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