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.