Memoirs, and movies about memoirs, call to mind the axiom of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard that “life must be understood backwards, but … it must be lived forwards.”
In memoirs, a writer can clean up the messy bits of a life, plot out the patterns of behavior that in the moment one rides like a surfboard on the waves. And in adapting memoirs to film, as with the dysfunctional family drama “The Glass Castle,” there’s a second pass at smoothing down the story, sometimes oversimplifying a complex life to fit in a two-hour narrative.
The movie, based on Jeannette Walls’ 2005 memoir, is the story of a woman trying to bring order to a life that had none when she was a child. Jeannette (played as an adult by Brie Larson) and her three siblings lived a nomadic life, with their unstable parents, Rex (Woody Harrelson) and Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), in the front seat. Rex’s intelligence is matched by his disdain for authority, while Rose Mary is a painter and a dreamer. Together, they jump from town to town, avoiding creditors, police and social workers who fear for the children’s welfare.
There’s plenty to fear, too. One of the first scenes in the movie shows 6-year-old Jeannette (played as a small child by Chandler Head), unsupervised while Rose Mary is painting, trying to cook hot dogs on a gas stove — and setting her dress on fire.
After several relocations, 10-year-old Jeannette (played by Ella Anderson) and her family land in Welch, W.Va., where Rex grew up in the heart of Appalachian poverty. The family moves into a ramshackle house with no electricity or running water. Rex buoys his children’s spirits with grand blueprints for a glass-walled house he intends to build. In Welch, though, the children must deal with Rex’s alcoholism, his abuse of Rose Mary and the influence of his spiteful mother, Erma (Robin Bartlett).
Director Destin Daniel Cretton (who directed Larson in the moving indie drama “Short Term 12”) and co-screenwriter Andrew Lanham (“The Shack”) intercut Jeannette’s childhood memories with scenes of her life in 1989. Then, she was a popular New York gossip columnist, engaged to a Wall Street analyst, David (Max Greenfield) — the kind of steady, status-conscious man who is the exact opposite of her father. When Jeannette discovers Rex and Rose Mary scrounging for trash in Manhattan and squatting in a condemned building, a clash between her past and her present is inevitable.
That sense of the inevitable permeates “The Glass Castle,” as Cretton and Lanham try to shape the chaos of the Walls family’s life into an easily digestible narrative. What we get is a complex life reduced to soap-opera clichés and greeting-card sentimentality.
As soap operas go, it’s a well-realized one, thanks to a strong cast. Larson conveys the turmoil of Jeannette’s emotions, as she must choose between accepting and rejecting her parents, with an economy of action. Harrelson plays Rex more broadly, which seems to fit the father’s outsized personality and is nicely offset by Watts’ quiet and soulful performance.
The MVPs are the four child actors — Anderson, Sadie Sink, Charlie Shotwell and Shree Crooks — who play the Wells children in their preteen years. Without the strength they show, as survivors of these screwed-up parents, “The Glass Castle” would be as unbearable to watch as the events undoubtedly were to live through.
* * *
’The Glass Castle’
A strong ensemble cast illuminates this simplistic recounting of Jeannette Walls’ memoir of a chaotic childhood.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Aug. 11.
Rating • PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking.
Running time • 127 minutes.