Grade: A-/B+
2017, 127 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, language, and smoking
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby TrueHD 7.1
Bonus features: A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Amazon link

Southern writer Flannery O’Connor once remarked, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” That’s certainly true of journalist Jeannette Walls, whose memoir, The Glass Castle, describes the nomadic, hardscrabble existence she and her siblings lived as they were raised by free-spirited parents without a steady source of income.

The book and this 2017 film revolve around her eccentric father, Rex (Woody Harrelson), a smart, off-the-grid kind of guy who’s described in the book as someone who, in all likelihood, was suffering from bipolar disorder. He’s an alcoholic, but not the textbook mean drunk who routinely abuses his family. He’s a loving father who can enthrall his children and uplift them, but who can also be cruel in his parenting and thoughtless about the way his actions impact those closest to him. In other words, he’s complicated. So is his wife (Naomi Watts), an artist who can’t be bothered to cook dinner for her children and tells Jeannette to do it—only to have her dress catch fire, scarring her for life.

In one of the best making-of features I’ve seen in recent years, the real Walls family appears with cast and crew, and it’s remarkable how happy they all are and how fondly they remember their spontaneous but spontaneously combustible childhood.

“I completely believe that even the worst experience has a valuable gift wrapped inside if you’re willing to receive that gift, Walls says. “But if you’re running from your past, then you’re going to lose the blessings that come with those hardships.” That statement alone lets you know that there is a richness of experience to be found here, and lessons to be learned.

The Walls’ family dynamic is more complicated than the average family, and the real Jeannette was clearly impressed not only by the actors’ performances but by director Destin Daniel Cretton’s (Short Term 12) ability to capture the ambivalence the children felt for their parents and the “different” lifestyle they lived—skipping out in the middle of the night because the landlord wanted his rent and squatting in abandoned buildings. Eventually they returned to Rex’s Appalachian hometown to live near his own semi-dysfunctional family, where a mother may or may not have abused him as a child. Yet Rex taught his own family a zest for life. No money for a Christmas present? No problem. Just lie back, look up at the stars, and claim one of them, courtesy of dear old Dad.

Jeannette (played as an adult by Brie Larson and as a child by Ella Anderson and Chandler Head) was closer to her father than her other siblings were, and their story is told in flashbacks that chronologically hit all the emotional touchstones, intercut with a present-day story concerning a successful Jeannette and her fiancé (Max Greenfield) that again proceeds chronologically. Since it’s episodic The Glass Castle doesn’t offer a classic Hollywood plot, but interweaving two narrative timelines is the perfect complement to a story about a man whose mood swings often took the family in two different directions.

The Glass Castle is a powerful film that falls somewhere between the spontaneity and anti-establishment defiance of Captain Fantastic and the fierce independence and tough love amid squalor of Beasts of the Southern Wild. There are joyous moments in this film and crushing ones, too, and the PG-13 rating makes it so that families can actually ride this emotional rollercoaster together. This absorbing drama has some violence and language, but it’s suitable for families with teenagers. In fact, it’s the kind of film that may be an eye-opener, a discussion-starter, or an attitude-changer. And do watch the making-of feature. It’s a big part of the experience, and you’ll appreciate hearing how much of the real Walls family found its way into the film: like all of the artwork, and the wedding suit that Jeannette wore.

Language: The usual swarm of obscenities
Sex: Aside from one episode that could have turned sexual, there’s nothing here, and it’s refreshing that there’s no molestation scene
Violence: A man is punched in the face, a girl is shown catching fire, and a man and woman fight and it looks as if they will come to physical blows, though instead they just grapple
Adult situations: Smoking and drinking
Takeaway: One of the most powerful films of the season gets its power from the story itself, the performances, a compatible narrative structure, and a deft directorial hand