Destin Daniel Crettin is one of Hollywood’s up and coming directors. In 2013 he made waves with Short Term 12, a film which he wrote and directed, and was partially based on his experiences as a group home counselor. With it he helped launch the careers of Oscar winner Brie Larson and LaKeith Stanfield (FX’s Atlanta, Get Out), and with its moderate success many in the film industry were eagerly awaiting the native Hawaiian’s follow-up. Fast forward to 2017 – Crettin is back with The Glass Castle, a biopic based on Jeannette Walls’ best-selling autobiography of the same name. Hoping to recapture the magic he conjured with Short Term 12, let’s see if the film is a possible awards contender or a mere pretender.

Crettin brought back Larson to star as the film’s main protagonist, Jeannette. Also on board is Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts and Max Greenfield (Fox’s The New Girl). Crettin directed and co-wrote the script with Andrew Lanham (The Shack), and together they created a feature which deals with some heavy subject matter.

Castle is Jeannette’s account of her poverty-stricken childhood as she and her siblings are forced to care for each other. Their nomadic parents are Rex, who is counted on to provide for his family (but instead constantly moves them at a moment’s notice whenever he loses a job or is forced to pay bills); and Rose Mary (Watts), whose focus on creating art can’t be interrupted for such unimaginative tasks as feeding her kids. To keep his children’s minds (which include 3 daughters and 1 son) off of their real world problems, he capitalizes on their imaginations and has them dreaming big. Their big dreams include a large and vast home which Rex promises to build - the Walls’ glass castle. But Rex has a few skeletons hiding in his closet and they stand to break apart his family and ruin the close bond he shares with middle daughter Jeannette.

Castle uses flashbacks to tell its story, and Jeannette is shown at various ages and played by different actors. The adult Jeannette is a gossip writer in New York City and she’s engaged to David (Greenfield), and it’s interesting to note the entire family lives in NYC, too. Rex and Rose Mary haven’t changed – they’re squatting in a condemned building and continue efforts to stay in their children’s lives. Jeannette has become the furthest attached family member, and she’s content to move on. But despite a possibly great future ahead, she is challenged by her past and has to come face-to-face with her father and their unresolved issues.

On the surface, Crettin’s feature deals with a lot, namely addiction, child neglect, family bonding, and broken promises. These are themes which attract Academy voters like moths to a flame, but the way it’s handled is suspect – The Glass Castle goes no deeper than the surface. Crettin, after doing so well to shed light on the difficulties which surround a group home, pulled punches this time out. For example, Rex’s demons run deep, and it’s highly suggested they go as far back as his own childhood. But instead of confronting the issues head-on, Crettin and Lanham glaze over them lightly and use those drawbacks simply to forward the story. Even Jeannette’s issues, which run much deeper than what’s conveyed, seem be outweighed by the good times she had with her family. These choices can be seen in two ways – either Crettin wanted to convey the idea that Jeannette ultimately is an optimist and refused to let her bad experiences bring her down, or the demons which circled the Walls family were constantly so negative that Crettin didn’t want to paint a bleak picture. Either way, Crettin held back, and his film’s emotional impact is lessened.

If there is one saving grace, though, it lies with performances. Larson has played broken characters in the past and they served her well with her take on Jeannette. Larson comes off as hurt and conflicted but adds a layer of strength and moxie which rounds out this her character nicely. At this point, Larson could make grocery shopping emotional. At the same time, Harrelson continues to be cinema’s secret weapon. The actor continues to put forth incredible performances, and his turn as Rex Walls is no different. Rex’s conflict (combined with his failing responsibilities to his family) makes his character insufferable. But at the same time Rex is endearing and even relatable. Also worth mentioning is Ella Anderson, who played a pre-teen Jeannette. Some of Castle’s more difficult scenes included Anderson, and she delivered like a pro. Because of these three The Glass Castle wouldn’t have been nearly as emotional. They drove the story, hands down.

The Glass Castle is an indie which has all the ingredients to be a successful coming of age cautionary tale with valuable life lessons. But it falls short, succumbing to a typical Hollywood formula whose blueprint is to overemphasize the positives and downplay the negatives. It’s standard work which won’t register as memorable. Performances are what make this worth one’s time, but otherwise Crettin’s latest isn’t a must-see.

3 stars out of 5

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