Catching up after vacation, I saw The Glass Castle at my local multiplex; it had opened over the weekend after just one advance press screening (at least that I was invited to last week when I wasn’t here). Why Lionsgate kept a movie starring recent Oscar winner Brie Larson, Naomi Watts and Woody Harrelson from a bestselling memoir by Jeanette Walls (played by Larson in her later years) under such a relatively low profile is a mystery to me — as is its mid-August doldrums release date, a time not usually reserved for award-caliber dramas of this ilk.

Because of that I wasn’t expecting much, but I was more than pleasantly surprised at the quality and craft of this film, which explores New York magazine gossip columnist Wall’s offbeat and tough upbringing by an alcoholic father who raged against the world and a mother more interested in her paintings than her kids — or so it seems.

Wall’s 2005 memoir was a no-holds-barred look at her early life and how she escaped a dreary existence growing up on the road and in West Virginia in less-than-ideal conditions, only to end up in the bright lights of New York covering the celebrity scene. It was ironic that her parents Rex (Harrelson) and Rose Mary (Watts) also wound up in NYC — homeless on the Lower East Side and illegally squatting in a deserted building. The film from writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton, who previously made the terrific indie Short Term 12 which also starred Larson, is a powerful story of the loose ties that bind us as family and the need to be yourself despite trying circumstances.

The Walls family is definitely not the Waltons in any way except the rural setting. This ultimately moving film flashes back and forth from Jeanette as a child (played nicely by Chandler Head and, as a teen by Ella Anderson) with her three siblings and mom and dad to her professional life in NYC circa 1989 where she finds herself engaged to an upscale financial advisor David (Max Greenfield), but afraid to tell her parents. Cretton does a nice job traversing the different time spans in telling her story, and as I say in my video review (watch above) he is helped enormously by this very fine cast. Harrelson is especially good, maybe as good as he has ever been as Rex, a father fighting alcoholic demons and a tendency to practice tough love on his family as he moves them from town to town, drifting from one job to another (when he can find them), and dragging the kids along with his schemes and dreams. Eventually he settles them back in his home state of West Virginia in a dilapidated house that looks like it should be condemned. He talks about his plans to refurbish it with huge glass window panes and his big vision. That’s where the film’s title comes from, but dreams are about all that holds this less than proud man together. This is a father who doesn’t buy gifts for his kids on Christmas, but instead gives them each a star in the sky. Jeanette has said she had the choice to look at him as a man who cheaps out on his kids for holidays or birthdays, or a dreamer who passes that trait on to his children with something intangible like a star. She chooses to see him now in the latter way, and though she presents him warts and all there is a sentimental streak by the end of this film that is quite touching. It is an extraordinary story and in addition to Harrelson’s superior work which alone is enough to recommend this film, Watts is also very fine as usual, particularly in scenes with Larson’s grown up Jeanette. Larson is also exceptional, and the supporting cast delivers too, especially Robin Bartlett as Rex’s stern and creepy mother, Irma. Producers are Gil Netter and Ken Kao.

Do you plan to see The Glass Castle? Let us know what YOU think.