By Bill Wine

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A sophisticated, successful New York City journalist glances out the window of her taxi one evening and notices a homeless couple scrounging for food scraps in the garbage and trash cans on the street.

A look of shock and shame surfaces on her face as she slumps down in her seat, as if fearing that she’ll be discovered.

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We soon realize that the reason she is reacting this way is because those two people are her parents.

And does she acknowledge their presence, does she go to their aid, does she rescue them?

She does not.

Thus does The Glass Castle begin.

Based on the best-selling 2005 memoir of the same name by New York Magazine gossip columnist Jeannette Walls, it’s a coming-of-age drama about a girl, the second oldest of four siblings, whose nonconformist parents create an unconventional, poverty-stricken family that barely gets by, rarely knowing where their next meal or next roof is coming from.

To describe her upbringing as unconventional is to seriously understate the case.

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Woody Harrelson plays the damaged, alcoholic father, Naomi Watts the artistically eccentric mother, and Brie Larson the grownup protagonist flashing back on her troubled upbringing.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, I am Not a Hipster), who co-wrote the adapted screenplay with Andrew Lanham, explores the way the titular edifice – forever being talked about by Jeannette’s father – ends up being more of a prison than a castle as Jeannette develops from childhood to adulthood and desperately attempts to escape her past.

Jeannette fights her way through her disappointment and disillusionment as she pursues the treasured feeling of being “at home” that she has rarely if ever felt, given her parents’  dysfunctional parenting style – if you can call it a style.

But that the children learn resiliency as a result is close to undeniable.

Cretton’s probing exploration of this willy-nilly-off-the-grid family recalls last year’s excellent Captain Fantastic, and the film’s ambition to be complex and authentic dealing with characters and situations that could easily have led to caricatures and stereotypes is easy to admire.

With Larson, Harrelson, and Watts – an Oscar winner, a two-time nominee, and a two-time nominee, respectfully – the film certainly has Academy Award credentials. And they don’t disappoint, especially Harrelson, whose showy turn is close to a career best in what is essentially a father-daughter drama.

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So we’ll raise 3 stars out of 4 for The Glass Castle, a family portrait that serves as both a cathartic confessional and a trembling tribute.