Hollywood sure has made a trunk-load of dysfunctional family stories, maybe because we “normal” people get some sort of satisfaction or sense of relief knowing that our own family situations can’t possibly be as bad as what we see in “Ordinary People” or “August: Osage County” or so many others. That kind of reaction might be even stronger when audiences realize that “The Glass Castle” is a true story, one that traverses a couple of decades while following the weirdness going on within the Walls family.

Based on the 2005 memoir by journalist and author Jeanette Walls, the film opens in 1989, when Jeanette (Brie Larson) has made a name for herself as a successful gossip columnist for New York Magazine. Things are also going well for her on the personal side, as she’s just become engaged to David (Max Greenfield), a successful financial analyst, to whom all she’s revealed about her pre-New York life is that back in hometown West Virginia, her mom is an artist and her dad is doing something in engineering.

It’s right around then that Jeanette (but not David) looks out the window of the New York cab she’s in and sees her dad and mom, Rex and Rose Mary (Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts), digging through a dumpster on a city street.

We don’t have to wait very long to find out what’s going on. The film immediately shifts to flashback mode, and in a series of vignettes that goes back to the 1960s, then jumps through the years, shows Jeanette and her siblings at various ages (and played by different actors), growing up under the influence of their freewheeling, would-be bohemian parents. The kids are all convinced that they’re on a big adventure, but the reality is that their folks are shiftless people who would rather be on the run than pay any bills they owe. Mom is a talented artist, but only paints for herself; dad has an innate knowledge of all things mechanical, and dreams of building a glass castle for the family. But neither one of them wants or can hold onto a job.

If you like character studies, you’ve got a strong one here. Yet even though this purports to be Jeanette’s story, and she’s wonderfully played by the young Ella Anderson and the very young Chandler Head, as well as by Larson when she’s become an adult, it’s really the story of Rex, an unorthodox schemer who is angry at the system and has found a way to keep himself and his family off the grid, even though that means the family is usually hungry and what little money does come in mostly goes to his bouts of boozing. He does love his family, but what he conceives as freedom is more along the lines of allowing himself to be irresponsible. This translates into a big, rich role for Harrelson, who plays Rex as a man who can easily switch from tender to tough.

The film’s structure follows Harrelson’s lead, smoothly jumping back and forth in time to different points in the family’s history, and the mood ranges from raucous and funny (notably in a terrific arm wrestling match) to sad and insightful (when it’s made clear how this lifestyle is affecting the children).

It all plays out as a family history as seen through the family’s very dysfunctional dynamics. But, as Jeanette says, late in the film, thinking back on what she’s gone through, “Life was never boring.” That’s made very clear through strong writing and acting, and is cemented when, during the end credits, we see a happy, kind of wistful sequence of footage showing the real Walls family.

— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“The Glass Castle”

Written by Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham; directed by Destin Daniel Cretton

With Woody Harrelson, Brie Larson, Naomi Watts

Rated PG-13