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The Glass Castle 2017

The Glass Castle 2017

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The Glass Castle attempts a dramatic trajectory that’s doomed to failure, and is more about good actors diligently distracting us from the problem than solving it. It’s based on a 2005 memoir about terrible parenting by Jeannette Walls, an American gossip columnist whose childhood was nomadic, often squalid, and marked by episodes of eye-widening trauma and abuse.

At the age of three, she set on fire in the kitchen, when her mother – played with a paintbrush near-permanently in hand by Naomi Watts – left her unattended, cooking hot dogs on the stove. The incident is the worst thing baby Jeannette suffered, albeit one of the briefest – well into her teenage years, her parents were yanking her in and out of squats, barely feeding her for days, and never accumulating the funds to lodge any of their four children in a fixed home.

Raging against the establishment and any other target going, her father Rex (Woody Harrelson) would waste their last few dollars on booze and once nearly shoved his wife out of a window. His idea of swimming lessons was to fling Jeannette backwards into a public pool and watch her flounder. The film presents him as a radical thinker and borderline psychopath – imagine Viggo Mortensen’s character from Captain Fantastic crossed with Robert De Niro in Cape Fear.

It’s at the very least a meaty part for Harrelson, who has mastered the business on film of swilling from a whisky glass, twisting his mouth, and fixing a sardonic stare at whoever is giving him trouble. Rex’s confrontation with a doctor after the stove incident, which left Jeannette with lifelong scars, is a brutal screed against the iniquities of US healthcare. And Harrelson clearly relishes the irony, in scene after scene like this, of articulating a wild, challenging vision of the world while not having a leg to stand on.

Unfortunately, as this script manoeuvres its way towards a cathartic deathbed reconciliation between Rex and the adult Jeannette, it increasingly doesn’t have much of one to stand on either, although Brie Larson puts up all the fight she can muster. This is a reunion of sorts with Destin Daniel Cretton, the writer-director who gave her a crucial breakthrough in the troubled-teen drama Short Term 12. Larson’s reading of Jeannette as a career-woman – polished, brittle, hiding her damage – is sensitive and convincing.