The Glass Castle is a heart-wrenching film about family — the tidal pull of an extremely dysfunctional family on its adult children. It is a true story written by the eldest of four survivors of neglect and abuse by a drunken, likely bipolar father. Jeannette Walls published the memoir of her childhood in 2006. She was a columnist for New York Magazine for many years.
Rex Walls was a strong and angry man running from both the tiny hamlet of Welch, West Virginia, and his own inner demons. He was the victim not only of poverty but also maternal sexual abuse. When he was right he was a charming dreamer — and in a way, brilliant. The “glass castle” were drawings on graph paper that he worked on for many years. It was a sort of solar powered glass mansion that was his someday dream home. Apparently an auto-didact, he imparted to his children lessons on nature, physics, astronomy and politics.
His wife, Rose Mary, was a dreamy, impractical artist who believed in him and put up with his drunken rages and eccentricities. She was almost an archetype for classic codependency. Her life revolved around Rex and his life orbited alcohol and his grandiose dreams. They had a pathological chemistry. As survivors tend to do, the kids bonded deeply, and with Jeanette’s guidance, to an extent reared themselves. Much of their childhood was spent roaming the country squatting in abandoned spaces and camping out of the back of a beat-up ’55 Ford wagon.
Rex taught his kids to be fearless and independent. In one especially poignant scene he nearly drowns a terrified Jeanette teaching her to swim. He wanted his offspring to run toward life and to fear nothing. He carried the fierce independence and unwillingness to take crap from the higher ups of the world that is in the DNA of many folks from Appalachia, and in several scenes Rex goes off on drunken rants about the anonymous bankers and captains of industry who control the world and oppress the rest of us.
When Rex and Rose Mary finally run out of money and hope they reluctantly return to Welch, West Virginia and the pathological family that Rex had spent his life escaping. He endures terrible DTs to sober up, gets a job, and there’s an brief idyllic interlude of familial joy — of course, that just prefaces an inevitable relapse.
Eventually, the kids one by one escape West Virginia and make their way to New York City. The parents follow them and live as squatters in an abandoned building, dumpster diving for sustenance. I found Rex and Rose Mary following their children to New York terribly poignant — clinging, not so much as leeches, but simply to be close to those they loved and who represented their life’s only good fruit.
The film has a few flaws–but really minor when weighed against its impact. Rex’s family tread close to being hillbilly caricatures and Woody Harrelson’s performance is just a tad overacting bit shy of brilliant. But it is a career defining film for him and will likely earn him an Oscar nomination. Naomi Watts as the mom and prior Oscar winner Brie Larson as the adult Jeanette are also very good. The four kids who play the Wall children are terrific — redheaded cute, vulnerable and wide-eyed.
The Glass Castle is real. It’s how life really is. It’s how it is and has been for many of us reared by parents who truly loved us but were conflicted and unable to fully transcend their own pasts. It made me cry.