“You learn from living. Everything else is a damn lie.”
It’s easy to dismiss films like Destin Daniel Cretton‘s The Glass Castle for losing their bite upon reaching a conclusion nobody can deny is melodramatically sentimental. You’ve watched Jeannette Walls’ (Brie Larson) decades-long journey of psychological pain and suffering wrought during her upbringing and ever-present in adulthood. You’ve seen trying times in poverty crosscut with present success, emboldened by her strength to stand tall and be the woman she wants to be no matter what the voices of her past scream into her ears. So you aren’t necessarily wrong when rolling your eyes at the possibility that she may eventually forgive her alcoholic nomad of a father Rex (Woody Harrelson). You aren’t wrong because you’re entitled to feel that way. You are wrong if you call it false.
Reconciling this is difficult—I know because I’m struggling with it myself. To make matters worse, I re-watched Cretton’s Short Term 12 this afternoon in preparation and therefore have its unyieldingly authentic depiction of survival to compare. Because his debut feature was fiction, it afforded him the opportunity to make choices that adhered to his message with a tensely propulsive narrative full of tragedy, catharsis, and empathy. The Glass Castle doesn’t supply that same creative license since it is in fact based on the real Jeannette Walls‘ memoir. That’s not to say Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham weren’t able to change some things (or that Walls didn’t embellish the true herself), just that they didn’t manufacture the end. It happened. Disagreeing with her actions doesn’t negate their veracity.
Would the finished piece be more dramatic if things ended differently? Sure. But while fiction’s main goal is to elicit an emotional response from the audience that can linger for days or years afterwards, non-fiction is also beholden to the truth. In this way Walls’ story is less about creating a conflict between Jeannette and her father that festers and builds towards a huge blowout for which there’s no coming back than it is about explaining what actually happened. This character isn’t Grace from Short Term 12 no matter their similarities. She wasn’t sexually abused and Rex wasn’t a wholly irredeemable monster. The Glass Castle shows that regrets are in large supply. No one denies this, least of all Jeannette. So too, however, is the potential for absolution.
It should therefore be judged under this filter because you cannot tell Jeannette she was wrong. A psychiatrist might have an expert opinion about her avenue towards reaching closure—and hearing from one about the film might give insight—but you do not. The only question you can ask is whether or not the onscreen depiction felt honest. I’m not sure how you can say no. These are the choices Jeannette made in real life and Larson and company deliver each reenactment with raw emotional power. Jeannette’s unwavering faith in Rex as a young girl (Chandler Head), her desperation as an adolescent (Ella Anderson), and her stubbornness in coping as an adult never feel anything but genuine. We understand that through it all, love remained present.
I think Walls does a good job explaining the why of her forgiveness as well as the why of its difficulty. That is the core message here, one that can tell people in similar situations they aren’t alone. We see the good times—a short stint where Rex gets sober provides a look at what their lives could have been—along with the bad. We acknowledge that Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) should leave her husband and take the children with her, but also the reasons why she cannot. It’s a fine line to toe when rating a drunken abuser on a scale from evil to less evil, but it’s a reality some of us must unfortunately combat. This film is about living in that headspace.
You can therefore call Walls naïve for building a new home in direct opposition to her old one regardless of true happiness lying somewhere between. But think about what she’s endured and understand why that choice was made. Jeannette is surviving like her siblings (Sarah Snook‘s Lori, Josh Caras‘ Brian, and Brigette Lundy-Paine‘s Maureen in their adult forms). She’s attempting to put her life back together and in the process may stray too far into over-compensation. This is why Cretton takes us back to see contextually relevant moments in her past that infer upon present actions. The story explains to us what pushes her too far and what can pull her back. But she must sever ties to truly break free and learn who she is without him.
And in certain circumstances forgiveness is the most empowering act one can perform. Forgiveness is something only you can give and thus provides you a sense of control. Rex has wielded power for so long—well meaning and ill—in a way that exposes his own tragic past with an abusive mother (Robin Bartlett‘s Erma). The Glass Castle is just as much about his demons as Jeannette’s because both attempt to escape them with varying levels of success. This idea of a transparent home as sanctuary may exist as a dream for the physical world, but it serves as a representation of father and daughter’s psychological pain too. They seek open honesty and freedom from the fear of oppressive guardians. Love is complicated and life even more so.
So it’s up to us to realize Larson’s eldest Jeannette is a product of repression as much as liberation. To close one chapter for another forces her to make black and white decisions in a gray world. Unfortunately this is often the case because any sliver of sympathy risks keeping you imprisoned within a cell partially of your own construction. Rex is the bad guy and Harrelson plays his temperamental authoritarian with pent-up violence to prove as much. But his performance also reveals his heart and his ability to be what he could have been if he left Erma earlier. It is therefore impossible to condemn him outright despite it being necessary. One must condemn his actions and then see if he can earn love back.
I think some critics have overlooked this film’s depth of emotion and psychology by assuming its finale absolves Rex of his sins. This is not what it does. In fact, I’d argue the contrary: it exposes them for the heinous acts they are by continuously comparing them to glimpses of hope and happiness. Jeannette Walls didn’t write a book that re-contextualizes her father as a great man. She wrote one that candidly describes his flaws. What resonates is that we all have the potential to acknowledge shortcomings and forgive others or ourselves for what’s been done as a result of them. Rex cannot ask for Jeannette’s forgiveness—and he never does. But she can give it anyway. That isn’t weakness or a disingenuous attempt at happily-ever-after. It’s strength.
 Brie Larson as “Jeannette” on THE GLASS CASTLE. Photo by Jake Giles Netter.
 From L to R: Sadie Sink as “Young Lori,” Charlie Shotwell as “Young Brian,” Woody Harrelson as “Rex Walls,” Ella Anderson as “Young Jeannette,” Naomi Watts as “Rose Mary Walls” and Eden Grace Redfield as “Youngest Maureen” in THE GLASS CASTLE. Photo by Jake Giles Netter.
 Ella Anderson as “Young Jeannette” and Woody Harrelson as “Rex Walls” in THE GLASS CASTLE. Photo by Jake Giles Netter.