There are those who believe that blood is blood, no matter how crazy your parents or siblings drive you. There’s a countervailing school that says, no, your family should deserve you, and if they don’t, cut your own path and never look back. “The Glass Castle,” the new film based on Jeannette Walls’s best-selling memoir of a gawd-awful childhood, tacks between these two philosophies without convincingly landing on either shore. It’s a watchable disappointment that leaves mostly frustration in its wake.
The new movie has the benefit of making your own family seem dull by comparison. Walls came to fame first as a gossip columnist for New York magazine in the 1980s, and that’s where “Glass Castle” initially finds her, played by Brie Larson (Oscar winner for “Room”) in yuppie power suits and big hair. On the taxi ride home from a dinner engagement, she passes a disheveled elderly couple rooting through the trash. One scene later, we learn that these are her parents.
Most of the film takes place in flashback-land, though, and it’s rocky terrain. The young Jeannette (played first by Chandler Head and then a strong, sympathetic Ella Anderson) realizes early on that her parents are both colorful and unreliable. Her mother, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), is a scatterbrained artist who thinks nothing of sending her 5-year-old daughter off to the gas stove to boil some hot dogs. (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t end well.)
Jeannette’s father, Rex, is the prize, though — a charismatic blowhard with hazy dreams, plenty of demons, and zero impulse control. Woody Harrelson plays him with the eyes of a big man desperate to believe in himself; it’s a good, meaty performance that almost but not quite conveys the full complexities of the Rex Walls we see in photos over the end credits.
Moving from state to state and dump to dump just ahead of the creditors or police, Jeannette and her siblings — Lori (Olivia Kate Rice, then Sadie Sink, then Sarah Snook), Brian (Iain Armitage/Charlie Shotwell/Josh Caras), and baby Maureen (Eden Grace Redfield/Shree Crooks/Brigette Lundy-Paine) — learn to keep their heads low and expectations lower. Rex, a self-taught expert on everything, also distrusts all institutions (he’d be a natural as an Internet troll), and when he nearly drowns the young Jeannette while teaching her to swim, we see his full measure as a delusional bully.
We’re primed to hate him, in other words, and to root for his children as, one by one, they dare to get out from under his thumb. “The Glass Castle” is so effective at painting Rex as a loathsome narcissist, in fact, that when the movie comes around in the final scenes, hammering at our tear ducts in an effort to see Rex as a damaged victim, you may find yourself heartily resisting.
That’s a fault of the filmmaking: a 180-degree emotional turn that feels formulaic and unearned. “The Glass Castle” represents a problematic step up for director Destin Daniel Cretton, whose 2013 breakthrough feature, “Short Term 12” — also starring Larson — remains one of the best unknown movies of the new millennium. (The 2008 short on which it’s based is even better.)
Cretton works well in tightly focused emotional hothouses; handed a decade-spanning commercial saga, he falls back on predictable storytelling beats and easy ironies. You see everything coming before Jeannette does, including the lightweight nature of her fiance (played by Max Greenfield of “The New Girl” — the casting tips the movie’s hand). An intrusively sappy musical score by Joel P. West tells us what to feel before we have to feel it.
By far the strongest scenes in “The Glass Castle” are the ones that privilege the kids: adolescent Jeannette talking her father through a late-night bender, for instance, or the bit where Rex and Rose Mary fight like hellcats and the terrified children dash outside to lose themselves in a game of jump rope. (Later, they watch in awed disgust as their parents pause in mid-scrap to make out.)
By contrast, even the gifted Larson can’t convince us that Dad really deserves to be seen as a colorful character rather than an abusive tyrant. It’s nice that Rex Walls’s daughters and son were able to forgive him, but feel free to forgive yourself if you can’t.
THE GLASS CASTLE
Written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, based on the memoir by Jeannette Walls. Starring Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts. At Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall Square, West Newton, suburbs. 127 minutes. R (mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, some language, smoking).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.