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.

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REVIEW: Short Term 12

14 03 2015

Short Term 12“Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like, to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like,” raps Keith Stanfield as Marcus in “Short Term 12.”  The musical moment occurs early on in the film, so the mood of momentarily subdued hopelessness is well established.  But his vulnerable profession of pain still feels like it comes out of nowhere, blindsiding us and leaving an aching bruise on our heart.

Writer/director Destin Cretton derived the film from his own experiences working in a home for troubled teens, so the scenes portraying the residents of the short term living facility are the most vividly realized.  They possess a potent, palpable authenticity that is rare to encounter outside of documentary film.  The kids do not come across as characters wandering around inside a story – they feel like people who happened to step in front of the lens.

“Short Term 12” would be a compelling enough film had it just focused on the backstories of the teenagers and what led them to the home, but that does not exactly lend itself handily to the narrative form.  Thus, to tie all the elements together, Cretton introduces Brie Larson as the home’s supervisor, Grace, into the script.

Larson is phenomenal in the role, bringing equal parts heart and grit to the table.  But the problem is, the rest of “Short Term 12” just lies on an entirely different level as her.  Everyone else appears to be inhabiting and living; Larson, unavoidably, always has to act.  They are authentic, while she is honest – two modes that are closely related but not quite synonymous.

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REVIEW: I Am Not a Hipster

21 03 2012

Reynolda Film Festival

Destin Cretton’s film “I Am Not a Hipster,” despite what its title might insinuate, does a fantastic job of deconstructing the modern hipster culture.  In one heated scene near the climax, musician Brook (Dominic Bogart) makes a distinction between “art,” which he makes, and “fun,” which his friend and manager Clark (Alvaro Orlando) makes.  His angry rant is as much a reaction against the YouTube and Hipstamatic-happy culture that makes the world replete with kitsch and devoid of much meaning as it as against Clark’s show.

But to call society the main concern of Cretton’s film is to miss the point.  His film is quintessentially Sundance, small-scale filmmaking applied to intimate storytelling.  Cretton narrows his focus on one character, Brook, and really explores who he is, what made him, and how he responds because of and in spite of that.

The film feels like it’s treading familiar grounds when it portrays Brook’s family drama of loving sisters, a dead mother, and an estranged father.  But when it dares to look into whether anyone has the right to mope around simply because they are an artist, as the stereotype of the hipster has come to represent, it is insightful and compelling.

Cretton, who fully understands the indie scene of San Diego, portrays it honestly and candidly.  The pretension is there, the scruffy fashion is there, the prickliness is there.  Above all, the humanity is there, and that’s what  makes “I Am Not a Hipster” a movie that is both illuminating and worthwhile.  B