The Glass Castle film adaptation has a few cracks

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Rex Walls is the kind of guy who could charm the feathers off a bird. He can’t hold down a job, he moves his family from town to town, and he is a reckless free spirit. Despite this, he is a good father to his four children. Until he becomes an alcoholic and spends their last few dollars on another bottle while his family starves.

Based on the best-selling memoir by Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle is a complex story that is tragic and uplifting at the same time. In this film version, though, the complexities of the characters are not thoroughly explored, and we are left to feel disgust at Rex for most of the film, even suspecting that he may be up to even more nefarious business than what we are seeing on screen. I’m not sure if that is a conscious decision, but in writing Rex was a more sympathetic character.

In present day, Jeannette is a successful writer living in New York City and has little contact with her parents — until she sees them rifling through a dumpster as she goes by in a taxi. She averts her gaze, not wanting them to see her. She is now part of a very different world, a different social class that includes her fiancé, an investment banker. We cut back and forth to various scenes from her childhood as her present day self grapples with an identity crisis and questions her happiness.  

There is a striking childhood scene at a local pool in which Rex, drinking from a paper bag as usual, tells Jeannette to stop clinging to the side of the pool and swim. After hollering at her a few times, he grabs her and declares, “You’re going to learn to swim today” as he throws her into the deep end. Some may see this as tough love, but after he does it a few more times and clearly traumatizes her, it doesn’t look anything like love.

By the end of the film, we are supposed to have a change of heart and see Rex as Jeanette’s poor, dying father whom only she can understand. Jeanette and her father did have a special relationship, but that doesn’t negate the fact that he could be abusive and from a young age Jeannette suffers with an emotional tug of war over how she feels about him.

With the book in the back of my mind, I was able to fill in much of the background and complexities of these characters, but the film gives us mostly surface-level representations of this family and their struggle. It races to a forced happy ending that doesn’t feel natural: the Walls family reminiscing around a dinner table. Sure, this is a story about the power of family and sticking together, but there’s more to it than that and this film doesn’t delve deep enough.

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