August 10, 2017 at 01:46 PM EDT

The Glass Castle

release date
Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts
Destin Daniel Cretton
Current Status
In Season
We gave it a C+

Dysfunctional families are the essence of drama — as evidenced by former gossip columnist Jeannette Walls’ visceral 2005 memoir of her childhood, the basis for this well-acted but too noble adaptation. Walls (played in late-teen and adult years by Brie Larson) and her three siblings were raised in itinerancy and squalor by an alcoholic father named Rex (Woody Harrelson) and codependent mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts). Rex is a drunken spin on Viggo Mortensen’s hippie-tyrant dad in Captain Fantastic, and Harrelson — despite a panoply of bad wigs — exudes Viggo-caliber charisma. Rex wants his kids to live without fear, but the wish manifests in incidents like one in which Jeannette is nearly drowned by repeated thrusts into the deep end of a swimming pool by her father.

That event is filmed in a terrifying single take by director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, Larson’s 2013 breakthrough), with the camera going underwater to capture the frenzy of her experience. But too much of the plot is spun with vanilla, especially tacked-on scenes of Walls’ starched careerist life in New York City with her Banker Boyfriend (Max Greenfield), presumably to engineer more screen time for the lead actress. Incidents of sexual abuse in Walls’ book have been eliminated, presumably to secure a PG-13 rating. Such compromises don’t often arise in great films — for example, Room, the stark, exacting 2015 drama that won Larson an Oscar. The Glass Castle unfortunately lives up to its see-through, illusory title. C+

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