Having read the novel when it was first published in 2005, I thought I was prepared for the family dysfunction. Instead, I found myself alternating between anger and horror as I watched two “parents”—brilliantly played by Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts—abuse their four children.
Hours later, I’m still enraged by the cruelty and neglect: A father throwing his daughter into a pool over and over again, trying to teach her how to swim. A mother who won’t stop painting long enough to prepare lunch. A toddler lighting herself on fire after offering to cook wieners on the stove. Not surprising the children would want to leave this toxic environment.
Told from the perspective of second-born daughter Jeannette Watts, the film spans a 25-year period. Brie Larson stars as the adult Jeannette, a successful New York City gossip columnist, who is engaged to a financial advisor (Max Greenfield). Estranged from her parents, Jeannette cringes when she sees them garbage picking on the streets of Manhattan.
During the flashbacks, scene after scene shows the family traveling from town to town, state to state, attempting to outrun bill collectors and/or police constables. When Dad is sober, he is articulate and loving, teaching his children about science and architecture while working on a blueprint for a glass castle. As a mean, spiteful drunk, he spends the food money on alcohol, abandons his family for hours on end, and pimps his daughter.
Mom is an enabler, content to spend her days painting while ignoring her children’s needs. When Jeannette urges her to leave, she simply shrugs and follows her husband’s lead. Both parents try to pass off their miserable existence as a grand adventure.
I wore my “teacher” hat throughout most of the movie, hoping that a responsible adult would step in and rescue the children. But the cagey parents were good—too good—at keeping the family dysfunction a secret and outrunning any concerned bystanders.
I would have liked to have heard more from the other three siblings and seen more of the strong father-daughter connection described in the novel. In a recent interview, Jeannette Walls commented: “When times got really tough, Dad used to pull out the blueprints. He never did build us a big, fancy house, but I’ve come to realize that he gave me something much more valuable. And that is hope and a dream for the future. If a parent gives you that, then you’re lucky.”
Definitely worth seeing…I wouldn’t be too surprised if Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, and Brie Larson receive Oscar nominations for their outstanding performances.