A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Jack of the Red Hearts is a family drama about an 18-year-old who deceives her way into a live-in position caring for a young girl on the autism spectrum. The movie has quite a bit of strong language for a family-oriented film: mostly "s--t," "bitch," "ass," and the insult "retarded" (used in reference to a neurotypical person). The main character smokes cigarettes, shoplifts, commits fraud, and generally acts in an iffy way for much of the movie -- until she starts to really care for her charge, Glory. Although the movie attempts to explore the challenges of family life involving a child with special needs, some viewers (particularly those in the autism or disability community) might see Glory as merely a prop or muse for a neurotypical character's development. The idea that Glory's family has had to sacrifice so much for her care might ring true to some, but it could also seem stereotypical to others who feel that aspect of stories about special needs families tiring or untrue. On the bright side, the movie doesn't shy away from showing that Jack's questionable actions, however well-intentioned and eventually even helpful, do have consequences.
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What's the story?
JACK OF THE RED HEARTS is the story of a desperate 18-year-old, Jack (AnnaSophia Robb), who wants to be granted guardianship of her sister, "Coke" (Sophia Anne Caruso), who will otherwise have to live in foster care. A petty criminal who's committed fraud and shoplifted, Jack ends up on the run from the authorities. With the help of a friend, Jack impersonates a skilled special educator named Donna on the day of an interview for a live-in position to care for Glory, a barely verbal 11-year-old girl with autism. Having blown through the family's savings, Glory's mother, Kay (Famke Janssen), has to work for the first time since Glory was a baby, and she's impressed with Donna's resume and references. Jack-as-Donna gets the job but has no idea what she's in for with Glory, whom she must shadow at school and during various activities and therapies. Although she's rough around the edges, Jack manages to "pass" as Donna -- except when she's around Glory's 17-year-old brother, Robert (Israel Broussard), who believes his parents are blind to inconsistencies about Donna's behavior and background but is also smitten with her.
Is it any good?
With fine performances from Robb and Janssen, this family drama is touching but stereotypical in its portrayal of how a girl with autism helps change an unethical young woman's life for the better. That Jack lasts even a few days as Glory's live-in caretaker seems unbelievable (and borderline insulting to professionals who've dedicated themselves to caring for and educating children with special needs). Although director Janet Grillo, working from a screenplay by Jennifer Deaton, wisely makes sure Jack faces consequences for her actions, the set-up is a bit predictable. There's never a doubt that Glory will finally express herself verbally and make breakthroughs with Jack, who has to steal another caretaker's folder to even have a clue what she should be doing with the girl. Robb, a talented young actress, gives Jack the right balance of a con artist's charm, a former foster kid's street smarts, and a determined older sister's desperation.
Broussard is equally as impressive as Glory's clever brother, who simultaneously crushes on "Donna" but has serious doubts about her qualifications -- like when she doesn't seem to know who Annie Sullivan or Helen Keller are and casually uses the "R"-word -- something he calls her on. The story edges into melodrama at times, and the fact that Glory's activities, diet, and therapies are portrayed as destroying her family both financially and emotionally may concern families with special-needs children. Ultimately, Jack learns a lot about herself and how to help Glory, and that's laudable, but the movie reduces Glory to a vehicle for Jack's character growth and maturity in a way that's formulaic. Still, Jack of the Red Hearts is worth seeing and discussing the issue of autism, how characters with autism are depicted in popular culture, and why the narratives about families with special needs to evolve and focus on them, not just their families and helpers.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how Jack of the Red Hearts depicts autism and its effects on a family. For families with a member who has autism -- is this portrayal believable? Stereotypical? What changes might you make?
What other movies or TV shows have you seen about people with autism? How does this one compare?
How does caring for Glory help Jack? And how does Jack help Glory? Do you know any families dealing with a member's special needs? How does it affect them?
- In theaters: February 26, 2016
- On DVD or streaming: May 3, 2016
- Cast: AnnaSophia Robb, Israel Broussard, Famke Janssen
- Director: Janet Grillo
- Studio: Alchemy
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Friendship
- Run time: 94 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: thematic elements including teen behavior, language, and smoking
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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