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Movie review: 'The Glass Castle' is painful and very personal

The Glass Castle; 127 min; Rated PG-13

The recently-released “The Glass Castle” is adapted from the 2005 bestseller of the same name, written by Jeanette Walls.

I have not read the memoir, so I can only share with you my reaction to this very personal film that depicts her experiences growing up as the second oldest of four children, raised, if that is the right word, by parents who define the word dysfunctional. But then the word dysfunctional does not begin to describe the chaos and chronic negligence that Jeanette (Ella Anderson/Brie Larson) and her siblings experienced, each day framed by their father, Rex (Woody Harrelson), and their mother, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts).

The two, seeming strangely oblivious, rationalized their itinerant life, moving from town to town, from shanty to shanty (often absent electricity and water), as some kind of hippie, rootless, existential lifestyle. In reality, it was a life held together by duct tape and string and an abiding, harrowing, relentless sense of insecurity.

All the while Rex tells his children, who want desperately to believe in him, that soon, very soon, he will begin construction on their glass castle. It will be glorious. A thing of beauty. And Jeanette, who yearns for his embrace and approval, often watches as he sits hunched over a table with house plans drawn in crude outline. When he explains his vision, she beams with hope and urgency. A home, a permanent place made of glass and light and steeped in stability.

What soon becomes clear is that Rex is deeply unreliable. He searches for surcease from his demons in a bottle of whiskey or the bottom of a whiskey glass. He is stalked not only by his memories but by his alcoholism, his rage leavened by a winning charm, a man who is simultaneously joyous and playful as well as haunted and angry, all the while inflicting his personal pain on his family and those who are the most vulnerable: his children.

The film’s first scene is of Jeanette, now 20-something, living with her button-down fiancé, David (Max Greenfield), an accountant, sitting in a restaurant. It’s the eve of their wedding. She is a gossip columnist for a magazine and neatly put together, the decorum and order of her life clearly outlined.

What she cannot escape, however, is her history, told in flashbacks, the first being of her as a 4-year-old going to her mother, who constantly paints, explaining that she’s hungry. Her mother tells her to fix her own lunch; there are some hot dogs and she can heat them on the stove. In the process she sets her dress on fire, leaving her with a permanent scar that covers her right side. It is a scar that is ever with her as are the embedded emotional traumas inflicted on her and her brother and sisters as they struggle to survive.

It’s as if the children are trapped on an island that is perpetually squalid, at one point subjected to Appalachian grandparents (Rex’s mother and father) who are predatory, cruel and in many ways mirror Rex. The siblings eventually make a pact that if they are going to survive their exigent situation they must take care of each other. They clearly cannot rely on their father or their mother. Rose Mary is no more than a devoted enabler to her husband, no matter his drunken episodes and egregious irresponsibility.

So, as the years pass, they plan their escape off the island, beginning with the oldest.

The Glass Castle is a difficult and painful film to watch. It could have been titled “Damage” for damage is what each of the Walls children sustained.

By the end of act two and into act three, there is not a shred of good feelings felt toward Rex or Rose Mary. Out of a chronic myopia and selfishness, they ignored the well-being of their children, living as if what they did and what they failed to do were inconsequential. The truth is that it was profoundly consequential. And though Jeanette struggles to find a rose-colored prism through which to ultimately view her past, for me it was too late. There was no redemption to be found for Rex or Rose Mary.

As an aside, Leo Tolstoy wrote in “Anna Karenina” the following: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Walls’ memoir gives unsettling credence to Tolstoy’s observation.