Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 100 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. This film is officially rated PG but feels like a PG-13, with cursing and language; teens kissing, an implied marital sex scene, and jokes about masturbation; a criminal record for the film’s teenage protagonist; some physicality between the protagonist and the young autistic girl she’s taking care of (pinching, fighting); teen drinking, cigarette smoking, and jokes about illegal alcohol purchases; a scene where the autistic child has a bathroom accident in her bed and then plays in it; and talk of a parent who has passed away.
‘Jack of the Red Hearts’ depicts a bond between a troubled teenager with a sketchy past and the young autistic girl she cons her way into befriending. The film’s attempt at being heartwarming is undercut by the unforgivable duplicity of its supposed protagonist.
By Roxana Hadadi
Two movies about autism in the span of a month is unprecedented, right? Last month we had “A Brilliant Young Mind,” about a teen boy with autism participating in an international math competition, and now we have “Jack of the Red Hearts,” about an 11-year-old girl with autism who forms a special bond with a teenage con artist who lies her way into a live-in nanny gig with the girl’s family. The relationship is meant to be the heart of the film, but it’s almost impossibly difficult to get over the movie’s initial conceit.
Because truly, isn’t the idea of a teenage girl preying on the hopes and anxieties of a family for her own personal gain a legitimately awful thing? And yet that’s exactly what “Jack of the Red Hearts” wants us to forgive of its central protagonist Jack (AnnaSophia Robb, of “The Way Way Back”), a tattooed, pierced teen girl freshly 18 and with a criminal record.
How she’s dressed isn’t a problem, but how she acts is: evading her probation officer, shoplifting, and aiding her younger sister in running away from foster homes. It’s Jack’s plan to gain custody of younger sister Coke (Sophia Anne Caruso, of “I Am Number Four”) so they can live on their own together (their mother has passed away, and their father is out of the picture), but with her lack of a high school degree, it’s doubtful—until she sees a help-needed flier offering free room and board for a position working with a child.
With that job security, she can easily save up enough money to get Coke back, she thinks. Initially, Jack realizes she’s in over her head when she meets Glory (Taylor Richardson, of “Annie”), an 11-year-old girl with autism prone to staring off into space, wandering away, and climbing up tall heights. But once Jack lies and says she’s a college graduate named “Donna” with extensive experience working with children with autism, Glory’s family hires her and immediately leans on her for support.
Only Glory’s teenage brother, Robert (Israel Broussard, of “Earth to Echo”), senses that something is off about “Donna.” But his attraction to her—“She’s a blazing beauty!” he brags to a friend—complicates his sense that she is clearly unprepared for, and probably not taking good care of, his sister. How his suspicions develop further, even as Jack/Donna and Glory forge a bond, lead to the dramatic climax of the film.
“Jack of the Red Hearts” was made by women immersed in the autism community—director Janet Grillo and writer Jennifer Deaton both have children in their families with autism—and the film’s best accomplishment is Glory. Richardson gives an excellent performance as the young girl, and when the film switches to her point of view—how she views splashes of color, fixates on patterns, and hears the voices of her family—it feels the most genuine.
But the character of Jack practically undercuts all of that; she feels like a collection of quirks (like an urban accent that she drops in and out of) more than a real person who would eventually care deeply for Glory. Over the course of one scene or so, she switches from someone yelling “What’s wrong with you?” to Glory to someone who commiserates with Glory’s parents’ concern for their daughter; the story focuses on Jack’s redemption arc, but it doesn’t feel legitimate.
When centered on Glory, her parents and brother, and the stresses they’re under in trying to care for their child and yet maintain their own family dynamic, “Jack of the Red Hearts” feels lived-in and true. But the character of Jack and her role in their lives feels so artificial—and uses so much clichéd dialogue, like “I guess she knew more than all of us”—that “Jack of the Red Hearts” only suffers for it. When Jack says things about Glory like “She can be a lot more than she is if you give her a chance,” you know the film wants you to apply that sentiment to both girls, but the goodwill “Jack of the Red Hearts” wants to develop for its titular character never feels earned.
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