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Shattered dreams: Emotional, physical struggles on display in captivating ‘Glass Castle’

No standard horror film delivers as many battles with demons, showdowns with the unknown and confrontations with emotional and physical struggles as the family drama “The Glass Castle.”

The movie, based on Jeannette Walls’ memoir about her life growing up with an alcoholic father, Rex (Woody Harrelson), and out-of-touch mother, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), puts the four children in the Walls family in proximity to an evil that is deeply rooted in reality. That’s why the film from director-writer Destin Daniel Cretton is such a strong story of the power of the human will, the strength that comes from family and the endless protection from human evil provided by hope.

There’s a separation that never goes away when it comes to horror films because no matter how good the writing or powerful the special effects, the audience will never completely be able to relate to a world where zombies, aliens or supernatural creatures prowl the planet. It’s that thin red line of blood that serves as a reminder than no matter how scary the events, there’s no way it could happen in the real world.

There’s no such division with “The Glass Castle.” What Jeannette and her brother and sisters faced is deeply rooted in society. They had to contend with a father who was himself broken early in his life while growing up in an environment where love was shown with the back of a hand. Couple that with his efforts to dull his pain through unfettered drinking and the children had to face a world where the man who was supposed to be their protector continuously failed as a provider.

From left, Sadie Sink, Charlie Shotwell, Woody Harrelson, Ella Anderson, Naomi Watts and Eden Grace Redfield in “The Glass Castle.” (Courtesy of Jake Giles Netter/Lionsgate)

“The Glass Castle,” filmed partly in New Mexico, begins in 1989 where Jeannette (Brie Larson) has escaped a draining life of poverty and disappointment that haunted the family because of her father’s inability to hold a job or stay out of trouble with the law. She’s found a job as a writer and is engaged to a successful man (Max Greenfield) who loves her enough to lie about her family.

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She hasn’t fully escaped because her parents have moved to New York, where they have gone from homeless to squatters. Her father believes that Jeannette may think she has found happiness but in truth misses the adventure of the life she left behind.

The film’s title refers to Rex Walls’ dream to build a house made entirely of glass that for years was just a transparent promise. In the most on-the-nose moment in the production, the hole that the children finally dig for the building’s foundation eventually becomes a dumping spot for their garbage. In reality, the idea was garbage from the start because of their father’s battles with his soul-killing demons.

The script bounces through time periods in Jeannette’s life with her as a 10 year old, teen and young woman. This shows how the admiration Jeannette had for her father when she was young has become tarnished with each violent, abusive or hurtful act he commits. Jeannette finally comes to the realization that while the four children have been able to survive by supporting each other, the only hope they have is for each of them to move away when they are teens and start better lives as adults.

Both Ella Anderson, who plays Jeannette as a 10 year old, and Larson, who takes over the role once the story shifts to the teen years, turn in compelling performances as the one member of the family who despite all of the pain and sorrow has not given up on her father. For Ella, that means playing Jeannette with the hopefulness of a child who has not had the great expectations about her parents beaten into the dust.

The young actress is believable both as a typical youngster and as the child who like in so many homes with an alcoholic parent must take on the responsibilities of an adult far too early. Even in scenes with Harrelson, who pays Rex with everything from cockeyed optimism to gut-checking honesty, Ella proves a worthy scene partner.

Watts also turns in a powerful performance as the mother who can relate to a canvas and paint brush easier than she can to her own children. This is a tricky role because Watts had to find the right degree of embraced forgetfulness and planned ignorance to show why Rose Mary Watts didn’t provide an escape but left the children to the mercy of their father’s whims.

But it’s Larson’s performance that gives the film both its touches of hopefulness and brushes with total frustration that binds all of the emotional threads. The sign of a great actor is when they can fill a long scene with multiple emotions without saying a single word. That scene for Larson in “The Glass Castle” comes during a Thanksgiving meal where she sits at the end of the table surveying the room. The look in her eyes goes from resignation to exhilaration to pure joy. This is the kind of work that has cemented Larson’s place as the leading actor with the skills to be the next Meryl Streep.

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It helps that she’s playing a role based on such a powerful and personal story by Jeannette Walls. The book writer has turned the story that’s specifically about her own family into a tale that reflects the plight of too many families in the past, present and undoubtedly in the future. The incidents might be different but the heart of what the Walls family went through is as much a part of the ways of so many families that it will sadly connect with a mass audience. Those who have lived through such horrors will find “The Glass Castle” tough to watch but worth the pain to see what can come from adversity with family, love and hope.

In the end, the production shows that you don’t need a glass castle as long as you have strong Walls.

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