The dictates of Hollywood screenwriting can't quite constrain the wildness of Jeannette Walls' family and her best-selling memoir. Despite a tidy resolution, too many scenes whose shapes are immediately familiar from other movies, and an absurd climax that dramatizes the conflict between a daughter and her father through the wheezy beats of a romantic comedy, Destin Daniel Cretton's adaptation of Walls' book of the same name just often enough bursts to raucous life. Here's an itinerant dreamer/drunk of a dad (Woody Harrelson) blasting the station wagon across desert scrub to teach his kids the lesson that they'll learn more from him then they will in any school.
Here's a hippie-painter mother (Naomi Watts) dashing out of the car to sit before a tree and capture it on a canvas, certain that her four children will be just fine camping tentless in the wilderness. Here's that dad, again, tenderly removing bandages from tiny Jeannette (played in flashbacks by a succession of actresses), revealing skin she burned while cooking hot dogs in the house they had been squatting in. The family's on the lam, fleeing social workers, but what could be better than the campfire and the silent horizons? What could be better than Harrelson's Rex Walls calling Jeannette "Mountain Goat"?
At its best, this Glass Castle brushes up against the rich complexity of lived experience. It's the rare star-driven crowd-pleaser smart enough to present more than one idea onscreen at a time, a paean to but also warning against cussedness that manages to exhibit some of its own. But later scenes, set in 1989, prove much more simple-minded than the flashbacks.