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Charlie Says

Movie review by
Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media
Charlie Says Movie Poster Image
Flawed, feminist take on the Manson story has violence, sex.
  • R
  • 2019
  • 104 minutes

Parents say

age 2+
Based on 1 review

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Friendship and sisterhood are valuable to the women. Opening their minds to new thoughts, messages helps them see error of their ways. Feminist messages in scenes in which Manson forbids female family members to carry money, during a dinner where a woman is instructed to let the men eat first (it's clear the directives are problematic). Women are also coerced into displaying their bodies, having sex. Many will cringe at scenes in which unwilling or uncertain women have sex, and when Manson tells a group of women that he only wants them around for their "titties and their shapes." A scene in which an African American man visits the Manson women in prison digs into nonsensical racism in Manson's Helter Skelter delusion. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Karlene is a good-hearted person who wants to help/rehabilitate the prisoners she teaches. The Manson women, particularly Leslie and Patricia, emerge as ultimately remorseful for their crimes. Manson, meanwhile, is depicted as a violent, misogynist, racist, paranoid maniac.

Violence

Scenes depicting notorious Manson murders are relatively brief but quite disturbing: A couple bound and hooded; viewers see them being stabbed repeatedly as blood flies, they scream and gurgle. Sharon Tate begs for her baby's life as blood-covered murderers loom over her with knives, slashing her cheek before the camera cuts away. A woman is repeatedly hit in the face by Manson, who then pushes her down and moves against her sexually. Later, that woman tells another that "Getting hit by the man you love is no different than making love with him." Women are instructed to make men "comfortable" or "feel welcome," implying they should be sexually available. A man is coerced into performing oral sex on a woman. A woman in labor is given a makeshift episiotomy by a character who "sterilizes" a knife by holding it over a flame for a few seconds (viewers don't see the cut, just the knife and the woman crying). 

Sex

Sexual content is mature and disturbing; much of it coerced (see "Violence"). In other scenes, women offer sex as a way to further Manson family aims: A woman moves her hand rhythmically in a man's lap, another leads a store employee behind a Dumpster, where implied oral sex ensues. A fairly explicit group sex scene and other scenes show women nude from the front, back, and side, and men nude from the rear. Viewers see bodies writhing and hear moans and sighs. 

Language

Language includes "damn," "bulls--t," "f--k," "f---ing," "s--t," "hell," "piss," and "blackie" (a word Manson used to describe African Americans). A woman is told after having sex with a man of her choice (instead of Manson's) that she's "whoring around." 

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Characters talk about being high frequently, and viewers see them snorting methamphetamine, smoking pot, and taking LSD, then dancing ecstatically and engaging in group sex. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Charlie Says is a movie about three jailed members of the Manson Family who remember and reflect on their crimes thanks to the guidance of a prison educator. The movie depicts the notorious Manson murders; there are violent, if relatively brief, reenactments of the crimes. A woman begs for her life before being slashed in the face, and a couple is hooded and tied up before being stabbed, leading to blood, screams, and terrible gurgling sounds and thuds. In other scenes, a woman is hit in the face repeatedly before Charles Manson (Matt Smith) rubs against her sexually, and other women and men are forced into sexual acts as a means of control and abuse. Women are frequently told to show their bodies and to make male guests "welcome" or "comfortable," and some decide on their own to have sex with men to further Manson's aims. Drugs played a large part in the Manson Family culture: Characters snort methamphetamine, smoke pot, and take LSD. Drug use often precedes sexual scenes like one in which a group of a dozen people engage in sex in the same room; men are shown nude from the rear, and women are seen nude from the side, front, and back. Bodies writhe, and we hear moans. Language includes "f--k," "s--t," "hell," "damn," and "bulls--t," as well as derogatory words for women and African Americans. Feminist messages are clear in the sympathetic way that women are presented, even those who are criminals. 

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Adult Written bycommonsensemedi... May 11, 2019

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What's the story?

When prison educator Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever) meets incarcerated Manson Family members Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón), and Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon), practically everything that comes out of their mouths is preceded by CHARLIE SAYS. But as Faith gently encourages the trio to think more deeply about why exactly they committed their terrible crimes (including brutal murders) -- and how Charles Manson (Matt Smith) convinced them to do it -- they uncover the pain and abuse that made them vulnerable to the control of a madman. 

Is it any good?

An overly familiar narrative and too many lengthy Manson scenes turn what could have been an exceedingly compelling take on a classic true crime tale into merely a mild diversion. The scenes in which Van Houten, Krenwinkel, and Atkins hunker down in their death row-adjacent cells with Faith hold the most interest, despite the amateurish acting, particularly on Murray's part. Many other biopics and inspired-by movies have given us scenes of hippies dancing and plotting on Spahn Ranch while Charles Manson raves nonsensically -- and though Smith does make a particularly magnetic Manson, hearing even one Charlie-ism like "The question is your answer" is too many, and this movie is full of them. Charlie Says probably could have done without the reenactments of the murders, too, particularly the disturbing LaBianca crime scene (though lovers of the disturbing will no doubt be intrigued, particularly since these murders are often given short shrift on-creen compared to the Tate murders). 

At 110 minutes, this movie is about half an hour too long, and viewers will feel it most when Van Houten unblinkingly watches Charlie doing his thing. But there's sizzle in other Spahn Ranch scenes, like one in which Van Houten is sternly admonished that men eat first at dinner, or when a group of female Mansonites heads out for a Dumpster-diving expedition to gather food. Joyously singing, holding hands, road-tripping -- we feel the pull that must have snared this family's members and understand the pain that made them long so much for a place where they were loved and accepted. Later, as the three central former Manson women learn about race and domestic abuse and feminism in their period prison dresses, ultimately growing remorseful for their crimes, we see a side to the Manson story that's not often examined: the cult members' journey from mindless adherence to logic. It's realistic and surprisingly sad -- and for this reason, true crime fans will eat up this unusual viewpoint, despite the movie's flaws. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the real historical events that Charlie Says was based on. What was the Manson Family? What ultimately became of the people who were part of it? Is this drama true to real historical events? How do you know?

  • Why do you think stories about killers and crimes are popular? What other shows or movies about murders can you name? Why do audiences enjoy this as a topic of drama?

  • What do you think about the movie's level of violence? Is it about what you thought it would be for a movie circling around a famous series of murders? What makes the violence in this movie more or less upsetting than what you've seen depicted in other stories? 

  • Do you consider this a feminist movie? Why or why not?

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