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“The Glass Castle” not as soul-touching as it may first seem

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Based on the autobiographical writings of journalist Jeannette Walls, “The Glass Castle” strives to present itself as a powerful indictment of familial dysfunction and the avenues people take to rise above horrible circumstances, and it nearly succeeds.

It is the story of one family’s trials and tribulations in the face of an unmistakable bond. Therefore, viewers are led to the pasture of demonstrative despair and discomfort, yet I can’t help but feel that something’s amiss here. For a narrative to proceed into a designated world of pathos, it’s imperative to form a union with these characters, and the simple fact that the lead one is designed to keep the viewer at arm’s length unfortunately ends up preventing the emotional crux that the producers were undoubtedly looking to create.

The story opens with Jeannette (Oscar-winner Brie Larson), a New York gossip columnist who intends on marrying her boyfriend, David (Max Greenfield of “The Big Short”), an investment banker. Much to this couple’s collective chagrin, Jeannette must deal with her homeless parents digging in dumpsters on the way from important dinners with David’s clients.

Now, I say that they’re homeless, but they’re technically squatters — which is exactly the life that Rex (Woody Harrelson in an Oscar-caliber performance) and Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) have been living, as well as raising their four children in, ever since Jeannette was a baby. Just so you know, the film does adopt a non-linear timeline of events, which sincerely works to its advantage by contrasting the life of a responsible adult with that of her upbringing by two irresponsible ones.

It’s obvious from the beginning of the film that this family is close and loves each other immensely. Rex is idolized by his four children, even though he’d sooner spend his last few dollars on booze than on filling his family’s stomachs. Yes, Rex is an alcoholic, and because of his life choices, it is unbearably hard to develop sympathy for him.

However, the screenplay by Director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”) and Andrew Lanham (and quite possibly Walls’ own memoir) certainly deserves a multitude of brownie points for trying their hardest to present him as a sympathetic character. It helps that Rex Walls is a tragic figure, there’s no getting around that, and Harrelson’s performance is entrancing, a definite career-best.

Naomi Watts brings a semblance of sanity to the role of Rose Mary, the matriarch of mayhem, who was an avid painter, though non-professional. When the final credits arrive on-screen and we catch a glimpse of the real Rose Mary, it becomes all-too-apparent that Hollywood glosses over everything, not the least of which is mental illness.

Lead actress Brie Larson shines in the role of Jeannette, although her scenes as a teenager fare slightly better than her “modern day” (i.e. early ‘90’s) interpretation of Miss Walls. While the New York predicaments involving her fiancé and oft-estranged parents are highly entertaining, there’s a unique freshness to her performance as adolescent Jeannette, whether she’s fending off a sexual assault from one of her father’s pool hustlers or hiding money in the floorboards of the family shack in West Virginia with hopes of a better life elsewhere.

“The Glass Castle,” the title of which refers to Rex’s dream home for his family, managed to invoke memories of two other films. It’s quite reminiscent of “Captain Fantastic,” with no survival skills being taught to the children, but rather survival at all costs – indirectly as it is. I could go as far as to call it “The Tree of Life for Squatters,” but that’s not exactly fair to either Jeannette Walls or Terrence Malick.

I do appreciate that Miss Walls went through one hell of journey to make it on her own, and I admit that this is a very compelling account of her life, but I also came to the realization that a story of this magnitude, which focuses on the relationship between love and adversity throughout long-term human interaction, should have moved me just a little bit more.

**1/2 (two-and-a-half out of four stars)

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“The Glass Castle” not as soul-touching as it may first seem