The movie world is filled with dysfunctional families meaning well while falling apart. They're typically fictional, so a true story like Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle should feel stranger than it does.
Before her successful writing career, Walls grew up in itinerant poverty encouraged by self-destructive parents. That domestic turbulence is smoothed by director Destin Daniel Cretton into just another bumpy ride, kept interesting by an actor's moving portrayal of Walls.
No, not Academy Award winner Brie Larson. She plays Walls from late teens to adulthood, with narrative gaps between escaping her family pain and coming to terms with it. She's practically flashbacked to inconsequence, making Larson's casting a minor distraction until later when past and present collide, releasing emotions pent up too long.
Instead, the joys and scars of Walls' upbringing, her father's cruel lessons and stirrings of the woman she'll become are found in Ella Anderson's moving performance as preteen Jeannette. Anderson's instinct to let the drama come to her, to nourish moments without appearing to try, is striking for any actor, much less one 12 years old.
Cretton and co-adapter Andrew Lanham might serve Walls' book better in more linear form, without Larson's Jeannette popping in to remind us more is ahead. Several of the film's strongest emotional punches involve Anderson's Jeannette: a swimming lesson turned abusive, a plea for her alcoholic father to stop drinking.
It's no coincidence those scenes also feature Woody Harrelson, whose soul-sallow turn as Rex Walls rates among his finest. Rex and Harrelson share vagabond smarts, anti-establishment paths and histories of indulgence, so the character's rascal side naturally crackles. But what Harrelson manages in Rex's crumbling moments transcends the confidence we know well, an actor wearing despair better than expected.
There isn't a false note in any of the performances, no small feat with a dozen young actors playing the four Walls children. However, Naomi Watts isn't served well by streamlining the book; Rose Mary Wells' mental health issues aren't addressed so she seems little more than selfish in parenting. Same goes for Rex's hillbilly mother — well played by Robin Bartlett — whose vile role in Jeannette's life (and maybe Rex's) demands calling out more.
The Glass Castle meanders toward its uplift ending, needing a few more of Cretton's clever time-jump edits, less rehashing the same personal failures. Not a bad movie at all, at times something more but seldom what it could be.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.