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Movie Review

"Rich city folks live in fancy apartments with their air so polluted they can't even see the stars. We'd be out of our minds to trade places with any one of them."

So Rex Walls tells his second oldest daughter, Jeannette, as they lie in a pile of snow, staring at the sky on a cold Christmas night. A night in which Christmas presents—as usual—are in short supply.

So Rex tells Jeanette to pick a star to claim for herself. She chooses the brightest object in the sky, Venus. Dad breaks the news: It's not a star.

"I like it anyway," Jeannette replies.

"What the h---," Rex laughs. "It's Christmas. You can have a planet if you want."

Rex would indeed give his daughter the world if he could. But despite that bighearted affection, he can't even give Jeannette—or her three siblings and their longsuffering mother, Rose Mary—basic necessities. Rex never lacks for cigarettes and booze. But his family almost always lacks for everything else: food. Running water. Electricity. Security.

The family's vehicles—sometimes an ancient moving van, sometimes a station wagon—are as much home as any of the abandoned places they squat in. But those "homes" are rarely home for long. Rex's taste for alcohol, paired with his easily provoked peevishness and total inability (and unwillingness) to pay his debts, means the Walls family never settles anywhere very long.

No matter, Rex rationalizes. "Family is where we are."

When young Jeannette suggests that she and her siblings should be in school, Rex balks, steering the station wagon he's driving across the desert and laughing as it bounds over ripples and rocks. "This is as real as it gets, kids," he preaches. "You learn from living."

Rose Mary, a painter, reinforces that lesson, spying an ancient, weather-beaten Joshua tree growing perpendicularly to the desert floor. "The wind's been beating that tree down since the day it was born," mom says. "But it refuses to fall. The struggle gives it its beauty."

It's an apt metaphor for the Walls' life: tenacious, even thriving in its own strangely beautiful way. Yet clinging to life in an arid, desolate place nonetheless.

Jeannette and her siblings adore their dad. But as they get older, they're see Rex for who he is: a proud, terrified, broken addict who will never be able to walk his outsized talk. That reality propels Jeannette, as an adult, toward a writing career in New York City, where she nurtures a lifestyle that's the diametric opposite of the life she lived as a child.

But Jeanette can't escape her roots, especially when the time comes to tell her parents that's she's decided to marry one of those rich city folks in a fancy apartment.

Positive Elements

Rex Walls is a tragically flawed father and husband. But despite those deficiencies, he still loves his family deeply.

Rex and Jeanette have a particularly close connection. When Dad comes home drunk with a bloody cut on his arm, Jeanette stitches him up, and they have poignant heart-to-heart conversation. "I swear," Rex says, "There are times I think that you're the only one around who still has any faith in me. You know I'd do anything for you. Anything." Jeanette responds, "Do you think maybe you could stop drinking? It's just—when you drink, you can't take care of us."

Rex does decide to quit, though he tasks his young daughter with keeping anyone from giving him a drink during his detox process. For days, he wails and carries on, his arms tied with cloth to a bed. When Rex emerges, he's battled through his addiction, which leads to a brief-but-temporary sobriety stint.

The Glass Castle also shows how Jeanette assumes a motherly, caretaking role early in her life. Neither her drunken father nor her flighty mother is a consistently good parent, so Jeanette discharges those duties. She cooks (at one point catching her pajamas on fire and ending up hospitalized), strives to protect her siblings and takes care of both parents. Near the end of his life, Rex acknowledges the toll his addiction took on Jeanette: "No little girl should ever have to carry her daddy on her back." Rex praises her for being "beautiful," "smart" and "strong." And he reveals a scrapbook he's secretly kept: "It's every story you've written since eighth grade," he tells Jeanette, who's now a magazine writer.

Though Jeanette does have a special bond with her father, as she grows in adolescence, she's also aware of his failings and tries to help her siblings escape Rex's controlling clutches.

Rose Mary, for her part, is depicted as being loyal to Rex to a fault. At one point, she comes close to summoning the willpower to leave Rex for her children's sake. "We cannot live like this anymore," she tells him. But she can't bring herself to do it, even though she obviously sees how her husband's behavior is hurting her children.

When adult Jeanette asks her mother why she doesn't just leave him, Rose Mary confesses how Rex rescued her from an emotionally damaging family as well, something that earned her perpetual loyalty. Near the end of Rex's life, Rose Mary encourages Jeanette to set aside her bitterness and visit her dad. "I know you love him, and I just think you'll regret it if you don't come home and say goodbye."

Spiritual Content

Rex's belief system is perhaps revealed as he talks with Jeanette about what's happening atop a flickering flame, at "the boundary between turbulence and order." It's a place where "no rules apply," and there's "no point in trying to find a reason or a pattern." Elsewhere, Rex says he'd rather "be in hell with my back broke" than return to his "godforsaken" home town in West Virginia. While going through withdrawal from alcohol, he screams, "God help me!"

Early on, Rex coaches a frightened young Jeanette to face her fears, which he calls "demons." Near the end, Rex revisits that philosophy on dealing with fear, telling adult Jeanette, "I spent my whole life running from those demons in the wild, and the entire time they were hiding inside my own belly."

Sexual Content

Rex and Rose Mary embrace a couple of times … including one incident (where he climbs on top of her) following a terrible fight.

In her late teens, Jeanette somewhat unwittingly ends up with a young man in his apartment. His intent is clear, but Jeanette resists his forceful advances, saying she's "not that kind of girl." He throws her on a bed, kissing her and trying to remove her clothes. Jeanette manages to get out of the situation by offering to take off her dress herself. She begins to do so (we see her in a bra), but her horrible abdominal scars scare the man off—especially when Jeanette says, "It's worse further down."

Rex makes a double entendre quip about enjoying seeing his wife in "full exposure." Jeanette and her rich fiancé, David, kiss. They're shown in bed together (and they're clearly cohabiting before getting married), but not sexually engaged.

There are multiple insinuations of incestuous sexual abuse (which I'll talk more about Violent Content).

Violent Content

The Walls family eventually moves back to Welch, West Va., where Rex grew up. The children learn that his mother, Erma—whom they've never met—is a stern, violent woman who cows everyone around her with belligerent put-downs and physical intimidation. She's quick to slap the children in the face if they misspeak. And instead of trying to curtail her physically abusive behavior, Rex tells his children that they must respect their grandmother.

The children spend a week with Erma. The girls find the woman apparently trying to unbutton the pants of Jeannette's young brother, Brian. They jump on her and attack the elderly woman in response. Later they discover their dad's old diaries, which imply that Erma sexually abused him as well.

As noted, Jeanette's clothes catch on fire as she's trying to cook hot dogs. Her entire torso is covered in flames, and Rose Mary throws a blanket on her and rolls her around on the floor to extinguish them. We later glimpse horrible, pus-filled scars underneath Jeanette's bandages.

Jeanette stitches up a nasty cut on her dad's arm. We don't see most of the impromptu medical treatment, but we do hear Rex coaching her on how to push the needle through the skin.

Rex and Rose Mary have a fight (which we hear more than see) in which she ends up dangling out a window. (How she got there happens offscreen, but it's implied that Rex probably pushed her.) Rex throws a chair through a window in anger. He puts a virtual stranger in a headlock. Rex clocks his future son-in-law squarely in the nose. Someone has a blood-soaked bandage around his head.

Crude or Profane Language

About 10 s-words. Fifteen misuses of God's name, including about a dozen pairings with "d--n." Jesus' name is abused once, and we hear another "jeez." "D--n," "h---" and "a--" are each used about a dozen times. We hear two uses of "b--ch." Rex calls his wife a "castrating whore."

Drug and Alcohol Content

There's rarely a scene in the film where Rex isn't smoking or drinking. And Rex regularly spends the family's grocery money on alcohol. When one of the Walls siblings asks what their father is dying of, Jeannette's brother, Brian, says that his unnamed terminal condition is the result of "smoking four packs of cigarettes and drinking two quarts of booze every day for 50 years."

Other scenes involve various adult characters consuming alcohol as well.

Other Negative Elements

Rex (and, by extension, Rose Mary) make plenty of questionable or downright immoral decisions. After Jeanette's hospitalized for burns on her abdomen, Rex schemes how to spirit his daughter out of the hospital without paying. The plan involves Jeanette's younger brother, Brian, pretending to have a screaming fit to distract doctors and nurses long enough for Rex to nab Jeanette. (It works.)

Elsewhere, Rex tries to "teach" Jeanette to swim by hurling her into the water. "If you don't want to sink, you have to learn to swim," he exhorts. "You can't cling to the side your whole life." The third time, Jeanette makes it to the surface alone. "You did it, baby!" he exclaims. "Don't touch me," Jeanette spits. "You tried to kill me."

One of the Walls kids jokingly references a plumbing-free home that had a "yellow poop bucket." There are references to Rex's penchant for gambling. He steals the savings of one of his children.

[Spoiler Warning] Rose Mary comes to adult Jeanette and asks if she can borrow a million dollars to purchase her brother's portion of an inheritance. It comes to light that Rose Mary also had been bequeathed a similarly valuable parcel of land when Jeanette was just 11. Jeanette is beyond furious at the discovery that a childhood mostly spent in terrible poverty could have been averted had her mother been willing to sell the land.

Conclusion

The Glass Castle, based on the real Jeanette Walls' memoir of the same name, takes its name from one of Rex Walls' unrealized dreams: building a solar-powered, window-filled home for his family. He's got the plans. He even begins to dig a new foundation outside one dilapidated residence where the family lives for a time. But the glass castle is never constructed.

This film's title reflects one of its main themes: the distance between our idealized hopes and our traumatic realities. For a long time, the Walls children believe their always-dreaming, always-scheming, always-big-talking father will make good on his lofty plans. Slowly, though, they realize that's never going to happen. Instead, their drunken, dreamer dad is an utter failure when it comes to traditional fatherly duties such as providing and protecting.

But Rex, despite his failures (and his penchant for profanity, this film's biggest content concern), loves his family. And Jeanette, despite her estranged disillusionment from her father as an adult, is eventually able to make peace with her turbulent upbringing—in all of its many disappointments.

"We never did build the glass castle," Rex confesses in one of their final conversations. "No, but we had a good time planning it," Jeanette graciously replies.

The story of Jeanette Walls' family is an achingly poignant one, exposing deep imperfections amid remarkable beauty. It's a story of navigating damaging family dysfunction while still realizing the profound dignity of even the most damaged family members. Ugliness and selfishness abound here. But then again, so do hope and courage.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults

Credits

Rating

PG-13

Readability Age Range

Genre

Drama

Author

Cast

Brie Larson Jeannette Walls; Woody Harrelson as Rex Walls; Naomi Watts as Rose Mary Walls; Ella Anderson as Young Jeannette; Chandler Head as Youngest Jeannette; Max Greenfield as David; Josh Caras as Brian; Charlie Shotwell as Young Brian; Iain Armitage as Youngest Brian; Sarah Snook as Lori; Sadie Sink as Young Lori; Olivia Kate Rice as Youngest Lori; Brigette Lundy-Paine as Maureen; Shree Crooks as Young Maureen; Eden Grace Redfield as Youngest Maureen; Robin Bartlett as Erma; Joe Pingue as Uncle Stanley

Director

Destin Daniel Cretton ( )

Distributor

Lionsgate

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

August 11, 2017

On Video

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Adam R. Holz

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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