There are a few moments when “The Glass Castle” threatens to come to emotional life.
But they pass.
Heaven knows there’s a compelling story here. Based on Jeannette Walls’ best-selling memoir of a wildly unconventional upbringing and a troubled maturity, this film describes a girlhood dominated by fiercely nonconformist parents who are always just a step ahead of the cops and the child services people. (This was a theme explored, with more success, in last year’s “Captain Fantastic.”)
But despite a hair-raising depiction of how not to raise children, Destin Daniel Cretton’s film plays more like a freak show — with one display of parental insanity following another — than the deeply moving drama it obviously aims to be.
New York City, 1989. From a taxi window gossip columnist Jeannette Walls (Brie Larson, an Oscar winner for “Room”) spots a distressing and deeply personal vignette: An unkempt woman scrounges through a dumpster while her man rages at the passing traffic.
They are Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) and Rex (Woody Harrelson), Jeannette’s parents, who are squatting in an abandoned building and living hand to mouth.
This triggers a series of flashbacks to Jeannette’s nomadic and impoverished childhood and especially her relationship with Rex, a possibly brilliant man who is all ideas and no follow-through, a mean alcoholic and a charismatic raconteur.
Rex is the kind of guy who, lacking money for Christmas presents, takes his kids outside to pick a star for their very own. (Awww.) He’s also borderline abusive, teaching his terrified daughter to swim by throwing her into the deep end of the pool.
Rose Mary is only marginally more centered. She devotes herself to painting (without ever improving, apparently) and has no time for mundane stuff like feeding her offspring.
The screenplay by Cretton and Andrew Lanham alternates between the present — where Jeannette ponders whether to tell her parents about her engagement to David (Max Greenfield), a sweet if somewhat stiff Wall Street type — and a girlhood spent either on the road or living in a ramshackle house halfway up a West Virginia mountain.
Rex has plans for that house. He’s always working on blueprints for his dream project, a new home with a glass roof that will allow the Walls family to starwatch without going outdoors. But, of course, this “Glass Castle” — like all of his big ideas — never materializes.
Eventually the Walls kids devise a plan to save enough money that, one by one, they can run away from their nutjob parents.
Why does “Glass Castle” fail to set its emotional hook? Perhaps it’s because after a while the never-ending litany of parental failures becomes more numbing than moving .(An exception is a hair-raising passage in which Rex, humbled by his daughter’s pleas, endures a homemade alcoholism cure, tying himself to a bed while he fights the D.T.s and the screaming heebie-jeebies.)
Harrelson has the toughest job here. Rex may be based on a real person, but he comes off like a literary creation rather than a flesh and blood figure. Plus, for every moment he’s charming and nurturing there are two where he’s selfish and maddening.
Watts fares better, sinking so deeply into Rose Mary’s bag lady persona that after a while you can no longer see the actress.
Holding it all together is Larson, who nicely captures the grown Jeannette’s divided loyalties at having her embarrassing, infuriating parents back in her life. In the presence of Mom and Dad many of us are reduced to ineffectual infancy.
And young Ella Anderson is terrifically good as the prepubescent Jeannette, torn between her love of her parents and her ever-growing conviction that not all is right with their household.
In its final moments “The Glass Castle” nails the novel’s delicate balancing act between irritation and affection. Sometimes the things we hate most about our upbringings are the things that made us who we are.
But it’s too little too late.
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
‘The Glass Castle’
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking.