The Glass Castle, B-
Rated PG-13, 127 minutes
The well-acted yet overlong new drama "The Glass Castle" is a compelling coming-of-age story in which the kids have more responsibility than the parents. Based on writer and reporter Jeannette Walls memoir of the same name, it goes on a too long, but it's satisfying enough that you'll need some tissues by the time you get to the end.
Four young siblings must learn to take care of themselves as their responsibility-averse, free-spirit, eccentric parents both inspire and inhibit them. When sober, the children's brilliant and charismatic father (Woody Harrelson, excellent) captured their imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Meanwhile, their mother (Naomi Watts) abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn't want to take on the work of raising a family. Their second oldest daughter, Jeannette (Brie Larson) is an aspiring writer, and her tenuous relationship with her parents as an adult forces her to reconsider her commitment to them.
"The Glass Castle" is directed and co-written by Destin Daniel Cretton, who directed the low-key but affecting "Short-Term 12," also with Larson. It brims with passion and darker moments as it explores the life of a nomadic family whose children desired normalcy from parents who were anything but normal. This moving daughter-father tale is full of heart, though it's ambitious storyline often tries to be too faithful to Walls' memoir and is occasionally overlong and redundant.
The excellent performances from the three leads also help carry the occasionally sluggish film, with Harrelson's layered turn as the alcoholic father one of his best of his career and the film's standout; Larson is also superb as the lead character, and she perfectly captures her feelings of love and distance from her parents as she strives to lead a normal life as an adult, with Watts adding some warm moments as the children's well-meaning but flighty artist mother.
As the young Jeannette, young newcomer Ella Anderson ("The Boss") delivers the film's smartest turn, as she's able to hold her own with Harrelson and Watts in some of the movie's best moments. There are fanciful ones of laying under the stars and playing and reading, and some terrifying ones when Harrelson's father isn't sober, especially a harrowing moment in a swimming pool when he literally forces her to sink or swim.
Cretton could've trimmed a couple of subplots for a tighter narrative, an awkward one involving Harrelson's parents, as well as the extensive footage given to Walls first marriage, though Max Greenfield ("New Girl") adds some charm to that role. However, you'll want to stick around until the end to see footage of the real family together, even if you're likely still be wiping your eyes from that teary climax.
"The Glass Castle" reminds us that no matter how weird the family, there's always a story to share, good or bad, that people may need to hear.