Extremely unpleasant and with almost no entertainment value whatsoever.
13 August 2017
In the classic 1990 holiday comedy "Home Alone", Old Man Marley (Roberts Blossom) tells Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin), "How you feel about your family is a complicated thing." I'd say that's true for most of us. No matter how uneventful our upbringing or how close we currently are with our family members, there always seems to be unresolved issues. Of course, significant issues in our childhoods lead to complicated feelings as adults. That has certainly been the case for writer Jeanette Walls. The former newspaper writer turned author endured a nomadic, poverty-stricken childhood, carved out a life for herself which was diametrically opposed to how she was raised and then had to come to terms with her dysfunctional parents and her complicated memories from her youth. She chronicled that journey in her 2005 best-seller, which spawned 2017's "The Glass Castle" (PG-13, 2:07).

To say Jeanette Walls had a difficult childhood is like saying that the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign was kind of divisive. Jeanette (played in flashbacks by Ella Anderson and Chandler Head) is the second of four children raised by Rex and Rose Mary Walls (Oscar nominees Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts). Rex acts like an overgrown hippie. His attitude is summed up well when he tells Jeanette, "Rich city folks live in fancy apartments with their air so polluted they can't even see the stars. We'd be out of our minds to trade places with any one of them." He loves his children on an emotional level, but does a terrible job of showing it on a practical one. He constantly indulges his drinking and smoking habits, but often can't afford food for his family. He can't hold a job, he avoids all financial responsibilities and he often moves his family from place to place – and in most of the places they live, they're squatting. Jeanette's mother isn't much better at parenting. She loves to paint and manages to do that in spite of her children often not knowing where their next meal is coming from. She gets frustrated with Rex, but she enables Rex's alcoholism and resists leaving him, even though he's emotionally and sometimes physically abusive towards his family. Meanwhile, their three daughters and one son are simply… stuck.

As an adult (in scenes that take place in the early 1990s – the "present" in this film), Jeanette (Oscar winner Brie Larson) has become one of those "rich city folks… in fancy apartments." She's a successful writer living in New York City with her fiancé, an investment banker named David (Max Greenfield). By this point, her three siblings have also settled in the Big Apple, as have their parents who are squatting in an abandoned building. Jeanette says she's happy with her fiancé and her job, and she seems to be, but her face also seems to betray a deep inner conflict regarding what she really wants in life – and how she feels about her parents. Early in the film, she drives past the two of them picking through trash, pretending not to see them. That incident launches her into a series of flashbacks in which we see her childhood play out (including a recurring subplot of her father drawing up plans for the titular dwelling, an energy-efficient house full of windows, which his children help him plan, but increasingly doubt will ever be built). In Jeanette's present, she struggles to come to terms with her upbringing, while her relationship with her siblings and her parents grow, change and move towards some sort of resolution.

"The Glass Castle" is difficult to watch – and not in a good way. The film is similar to 2016's "Captain Fantastic" (and includes a couple of the same child actors), but that one was somewhat entertaining. Movie Fans will marvel at the irresponsibility, neglect and even abuse on the part of these parents, and wonder how the kids survived, let alone felt any affection for them. In its synopsis, Rotten Tomatoes calls this movie "a remarkable story of unconditional love", but people who see it will be forced to consider whether these parents deserved such devotion and whether their children are foolish for trying to give it. This story is really more about resilience, while the experience of watching it is more like an endurance test. A few times, I found myself briefly closing my eyes, not because I was tired, or even because of any specific images on the screen, but because I simply didn't want to watch these characters anymore. Only my integrity as a reviewer kept me in my seat, but even that was tested. Hearing fingernails dragged across an old chalkboard is more pleasant than enduring this film. Director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton should never be allowed to bring another book to the screen. The book includes more interesting stories and more emotional levels than this adaptation. Cretton chooses to oversimplify Jeanette's life and focuses mainly on the depressing point of how bad her parents were. Only impressive performances by the main actors keep this movie from being completely unwatchable – and it's still a close call. "D"
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