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Movie Review: #GlassCastle

The Glass Castle insults our intelligence for big Oscar moments that I hope will never come.

Review by Matt Cummings
If 2016's Spotlight and 2015's Room - both Oscar winners - proved anything, it's that stories of incredible abuse can be righted by the healing power of the human spirit. In both cases, our victims succeed, championed by a system of caring whose story is almost as interesting as the victim's. We learn some our most important life lessons from the visual arts, something that I wish The Glass Castle would have remembered. Instead, we get a movie that minimizes the true problem of parental abuse and neglect, and wraps up our story neat and tidy and ready for an Oscar it truly doesn't deserve.
Columnist Jeanette Walls (Brie Larson) lives a very a comfortable life in 1989's New York, having recently become engaged to financier David (Max Greenfield). But under the fine dining and nearly antiseptic living conditions, Jeanette harbors a dark past: her alcoholic father Rex (Woody Harrelson) and eccentric artist-mother Rose (Naomi Watts) have neglected her and the other children for more than 15 years, constantly moving them around, and even denying them food and clean living conditions. Rex's once brilliant mind has come undone, as he imagines literally building his children a glass castle using yet-to-be-developed tech that he himself draws in the middle of the night, fed by a difficult past that he himself cannot escape. Now having located Jeanette in NY, Rex and Rose attempt to convince their daughter not to marry David, not because he's abusive to her, but because the life she has concocted is an entirely fictitious one, something that goes against the nomadic personality of her parents. The results will see the 1989 Jeanette take an intensely personal journey, one that will test her at every step to either accept her new life and reject her father, or return to his manipulative arms. The Glass Castle is frankly an insult. For over two hours, it forces the audience to watch through a keyhole as Jeanette and her siblings are denied a meaningful place to call home, food to eat, and even an education that they must take on themselves to affect. Sure, the result sees each of them rise on their own above the morass, but it's never ever satisfying, and yet it's meant to. Writer/Director Destin Daniel Cretton sets the moments out there for us to at first mistrust and then ultimately hate Rex; but instead of galvanizing the children into action, Cretton just sets them through one terrible moment after another. As each event came and went, I found myself feeling more desensitized over Jeanette's plight, not because she's young and has no idea of her options - but because there are so many of them. We don't need 2 hours of this to appreciate what's happening. When Jeanette finally escapes, it's only to see her fail until Rex comes and saves her with a wad of cash. Sure that's a moment to demonstrate Rex's growth, but it's also a moment of sweet freedom for Jeanette that is replaced with her father seizing the reigns of her life once more.
Moreover, Cretton commits a greater movie sin, making Jeanette's life comfortable (and seemingly calmer) life in NY seem so drab that she almost has no choice but to leave it. And when that ultimately happens - because that's what happens in movies like this - the results make her look like she's been manipulated once again. There is no logic that can be expressed in which a woman who's escaped such treatment would choose to walk away from the stability David provided, unless Jeanette herself was also mentally unbalanced. That isn't how Larson - who's very good here - portrays it. Had she done so - and thus displayed a victim's stance - we might have loved the film. But instead we get the following at the end of the script based on the book by Jeanette Walls: after Rex has passed away - in a scene prior that in no way reflects reality - Jeanette hosts Thanksgiving for the family, having left her finacee and ready to toast not David but Rex. There is no reality in which Castle's logic makes sense, and therefore misses a golden opportunity for the family to witness a real victory. Larson's career has skyrocketed in the past two years, elevated by her Oscar performance in Room, but not even she (or the equally excellent Harrelson) can save this. For all the growth both have made in recent years - waiting to be rewarded when Oscar nominations are handed out in February - it's the underlying DNA of Castle that poisons any appreciation I have for their acumen. Watts is also fantastic, playing The Crunchy Granola with perfect unshaven armpits until she too realizes that Rex is doomed. She's as much a victim of his antics as are the children, and when that moment of realization arrives Watts plays it quite well. The child actors (led by Ella Anderson as the younger Jeanette) also prove their mettle in a film that's frankly hard to watch. Yes, it's fundamentally flawed but it's also such a tough subject that unsuspecting audiences are bound to demand their money back once they realize what they've gotten themselves into. Don't say I didn't warn you.
The Glass Castle insults our intelligence by minimizing the genuine problem of parental abuse and neglect. Sure, our actors are top notch and Cinematographer Brett Pawlak crafts a gorgeous-looking movie, but the suggestion that Jeanette can emerge from this ordeal ready to celebrate her father's life over a toast smacks in the face of anyone's who been a victim. It wreaks of Oscar bait, ready to write up a tearful thank you that I hope will never come. Castle reminds us of the pitfalls of creating a film under such pretenses, sacrificing the real story - and any hope for healing by its audience - for big movie moments meant to tug at our heart strings. Such neat-and-tidy efforts deserve neither our attention nor praise. Skip this one under every circumstance. The Glass Castle is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking and has a runtime of 127 minutes. Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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