Based on an unsparing, unprettified 2005 family memoir by former gossip columnist Jeanette Walls, The Glass Castle arrives on the big screen slicked up and eager to sooth when it should be ready to rumble. Walls pulled no punches on the page, using her own childhood to build a microcosm of poverty in America and what it does to children. She and her three siblings had to shit in a bucket and get by without heat, electricity and plumbing. The family lived off the grid as squatters, before settling awhile in Appalachia; the kids were at the mercy of a mentally unstable mother, who worked on her paintings while her kids starved. And then there was Walls' alcoholic dreamer of a father, who spent most of his time between boozing binges running from the law and bill collectors.
The film version is directed with off-putting artificiality by Destin Daniel Cretton, who wrote the by-the-numbers script with Andrew Lanham. Oscar winner Brie Larson plays the adult Jeannette – and it's through her perspective as a New York columnist/New York success story that we view the horrorshow of her past. The director meshed superbly with Larson in 2013's Short Term 12, drawn from his own experiences working with troubled teens. That film scarcely rang a false note. This one is full to bursting with them.
The actors do what they can against impossible odds. Naomi Watts plays the mother, Mary Rose, with a flighty, distracted air that doesn't excuse a rampant neglect. She can't be bothered to cook dinner for her kids because she has to heed the call of her muse; we then watch as a kitchen fire engulfs Jeannette, leaving her with third degree burns on her torso. Woody Harrelson brings a full arsenal of personal charisma to Rex, the father who promises Jeannette that one day he will build her a glass castle. The fact that he doesn't keep this promise – or most others – is not supposed to matter; he's taught his daughter to dream big. What Walls made flesh-and-blood in the book comes off on film as a barely-sketched outline, one that oddly distances us from the story instead of pulling us in.
The most moving performance comes from Ella Anderson, who plays Jeannette from roughly nine to 13. Her expressive eyes show us the toll hardship and carelessness take on a child – no matter how much she later makes of herself in the adult world, a well-paid magazine writer and engaged to an investment banker (Max Greenfield) and able to look away when she spots her mother dumpster diving in New York. Cretton's film is too manicured and tonally modulated to let us into the anger and gutting guilt roiling inside Jeannette. The film keeps selling easy uplift – even in a coda featuring Walls and her real parents – when it most needs to generate raw emotion and blunt truth. Hollywood has a knack for sanitizing books that deserve better. In the case of The Glass Castle, it's a damn shame.