Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The Glass Castle (2017) - Movie Review
The plot: Jeannette Walls (Brie Larson), now a successful businesswoman, reminisces about her childhood. Specifically, being raised alongside her sisters Lori (Sarah Snook) and Maureen (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and her brother Brian (Josh Caras) by their mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) and Rex (Woody Harrelson). As she recollects her family’s secluded and rather destitute living conditions, and sees her parents’ current living conditions, she has to come to terms with what they did to her and her siblings, both the good and the bad.

Larson is ideal as our focal point performance, getting across all the bubbling rage and sheer exhaustion of her character brilliantly, same with Ella Anderson as her younger self. Snook works alright as part of the larger family dynamic, but honestly, I think Olivia Kate Rice as her own younger self actually makes for a stronger on-screen presence. She manages to match and even exceed Anderson in a few scenes, coming across as part of the core that is just barely holding everyone together. Josh Caras fits in well along the same lines, as does Brigette Lundy-Paine, and Max Greenfield as Jeannette’s fiancĂ© works very well as the outsider perspective on just how messed up this all is.

And speaking of messed-up, time to get into the parental figures. Harrelson ends up giving one of the best performances I’ve seen from him yet, getting across so much broken psychology with the right amount of self-talk justification to create a person that might be fun to hang out with at a party but an absolute nightmare as far as regular contact goes. Watts does unsettlingly well as the artistic enabler, breezing through all the arguments and even the sweeter moments between her and Harrelson so easily as to make it seem real. And that on its own is terrifying. Oh, and Robin Bartlett as the grandmother is somehow even more beastly as a “”””caregiver”””” (yeah, it’s that bad) but it’s what the role requires of her and she does very well in that mode.

This has to be one of the most messed-up families of any film I’ve covered this year, if not ever. And what’s more, the film doesn’t even attempt to hide just how unhealthy everything that we’re seeing is. Going through several years of the family’s history, we are shown a collection of increasingly monstrous decisions on the part of Rex and Rose Mary that can make a person rather queasy while watching it. Decisions like Rex trying to teach Jeannette how to swim by literally throwing her into the deep end. Repeatedly. Or how the children frequently go hungry. Or how Rex and Rose Mary’s definition of “adventure” means “anything that could pose a threat to your life”. But more so than the actions depicted, it’s how it is justified by the perpetrators that makes the skin crawl. It’s that perfect blend of guilt tripping, intimidation and good old fashioned gas-lighting that allows the very articulate Rex to just wring those around him for everything they have. It is textbook bad parenting but it doesn’t read like an actual textbook; rather, it feels like something ripped out of a real-world example of toxic caregiving. Namely, because it actually is.

So, with all that in mind, why the hell is this film’s tone all over the goddamn place? Interspersed with all this delightful fucking imagery, we keep getting moments of unabashed whimsy like Rex letting the kids pick out stars in the sky for their Christmas presents or the endless talks about the titular Glass Castle, a magnificent house that Rex keeps saying that he’s going to build one of these days. If this had Tideland-esque framing in place, where the true horror of the situation comes out of how it is processed through a child’s innocence and lack of understanding, these touches would feel like they have a place in the story. But no, the kids are consistently adamant about just how horrible their living conditions are.
That’s part of what makes the film as watchable as it is: The fact that even children this young can tell that something is wrong, furthering the year’s trend of unnaturally strong kids in harrowing situations. To say nothing of the film’s conclusion, where it honest to Dude tries to make us sympathise with Rex, even with everything he has done in mind. Given this film is the only instance where I legit wanted to punch Woody Harrelson in the face, you can guess how well that turns out.

But that’s kind of the problem with really personal stories like this: No matter how strained familial connections can get, they are still familial connections. No one person’s close relationship with another will be entirely bad or entirely good. We’re just too complicated a species for that to be the case, even in scenarios like this. And no, I’m not necessarily talking about Stockholm syndrome or anything along those lines; I’m talking just in terms of how family members can affect a person over the course of their entire lifespan. When we see how Jeannette reacts to everything around her, both the past and the present, it’s always a very heady mixture of stomach-churning and a bout of laughter to break the tension. Contextualising real people is always a difficult task, and one that a lot of families have to deal with at some point when it comes to time to finally say goodbye to them.
I’m starting to seriously ramble here, but the point I’m trying to get at is that this film’s tone being everywhere at once? That still has some power to it. It may cut into the seriousness of what’s going on, but at the same time, it also shows that relationships like this are very complex creatures. It’s easy enough to say that all of this is incredibly troubling from the outside, but from the inside? Where you get the complete array of connections to the person in question? Where, regardless of how they raised you, they still helped make you the person you are today? Where this is a retelling of actual events, from the perspective of someone at the centre of it all? Cutting through that isn’t so easy.

All in all, this is almost cruel in how depressing and uncomfortable this is. The acting is top-of-the-line with a lot of standout performances, the writing is unrelenting in how it depicts an incredibly troubled family, and even with the myriad of mindfragging that goes on throughout to the point where it’s unclear how angry the audience should be while watching all this, it still taps into feelings involving family that are insanely intricate to begin with. There’s definitely a better movie to be made out of this story, one with a lot more focus and a better grip on presentation, but I can’t say I hate this. Like, not even remotely.

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