Late in The Glass Castle, which is based on Jeannette Walls' best-selling memoir about growing up in a rootless and highly dysfunctional family, Jeannette (Brie Larson) gets into an argument with her homeless, alcoholic father, Rex, when he shows up unexpectedly at her engagement party in New York City. Rex disapproves of her highfalutin lifestyle and her rich fiancé, but he wants to borrow some money. After all, he says, they're family. "We were never a family," she shouts at him. "We were a nightmare!" And for the first two-thirds of director Destin Daniel Cretton's film adaptation, Walls' nightmare is vividly brought to life. It's a heartbreaking, sometimes brutal, but always fascinating journey, anchored by a never-better Woody Harrelson as Rex, and by Ella Anderson's haunting, veracious performance as the preteen Jeannette. Unfortunately, the script by Cretton and Andrew Lanham fails to stick the landing, serving up a pile of sentimental slop in the film's final reel. It all leads to a misguided happy ending that feels as hollow as Rex's never-ending promises to provide for his family.
The Walls children are essentially brought up as nomads. Rex, self-taught and book smart, is a chronic alcoholic and negligent father who never holds a job for long. He drags his wife and four kids across the country from one dilapidated shack to the next whenever bill collectors or the law are hot on his trail. His family often go without food, electricity, indoor plumbing, or medical care. And he's apt to put them in harm's way, as when he urges a teenage Jeannette to flirt with a man in a bar so he can hustle the sucker at pool; later, the man tries to rape her. When he's sober, Rex spends a great deal of his time drawing an elaborate blueprint for a glass castle he tells his children he's going to build them someday. Sadly, Rex never commits to anything except drinking. Meanwhile, his wife Rose Mary (a fine Naomi Watts) is a free-spirited artist who puts painting ahead of caring for her kids. The Walls eventually end up in Rex's hometown of Welch, WV, and finally put down some roots when they move into a ramshackle house there -- although the kids are already plotting their escape when they're old enough.
The Walls' sorrowful tale is told via flashbacks, as the adult Jeannette recalls her tough upbringing and tries to keep her well-heeled colleagues in Manhattan from discovering her family history. Larson, so memorable in her Oscar-winning performance in Room, is a supporting player for much of The Glass Castle. It's only in the story's latter stages that her role becomes more prominent, and, sorry to say, these scenes are the least convincing. The filmmakers are unsparing in showing us Rex's instability, callousness, and alcohol-fueled rages for the great majority of the movie. But in the end when Rex lays dying, they attempt to whitewash his behavior and make us believe that he wasn't really all that bad. We're reminded that he had his good moments, too, as Jeannette replays some of them in her head. Well, yes, he did, but those few incidents can never erase the heartbreak and horror he brought upon his family -- or the audience. It's commendable that Jeannette reaches a place of unconditional love for her dad, but as presented here it feels contrived.
The Glass Castle would have been more effective if it had concentrated entirely on Jeannette's childhood and teen years, and told her story chronologically. The uplifting ending would come when Jeannette flees Welch and escapes to New York, where we would learn, via onscreen text, that she graduated from Barnard College with honors and became a successful columnist and author. Of course, that movie likely wouldn't have starred Brie Larson. It seems strange to say, but a Larson-less version of The Glass Castle would have been the better way to go.