Movies about autism are rarely made, but Jack of the Red Hearts is thoughtful and intentional in its portrayal of an 11-year-old girl with autism. But practically everything else about the movie—from its bad-girl protagonist to a gimmicky teen relationship—feels disingenuous. It’s bizarre how half of Jack of the Red Hearts feels legitimate and half of it feels patently false, but here we are.
The film director Janet Grillo and writer Jennifer Deaton, both of whom have children with autism in their immediate or extended families, are responsible for the dichotomy of Jack of the Red Hearts, which focuses on two girls: 18-year-old Jack (AnnaSophia Robb) and 11-year-old Glory (Taylor Richardson). The former is a tattooed, pierced bad girl with a criminal record who has been kicked out of her local community center, evades her probation officer, and parties with her friends. Her only real concern is life is her younger sister Coke (Sophia Anne Caruso); they were left to fend for themselves when their mother passed away, and their sisterhood is exemplified in Jack’s description for their goofy nicknames: “Jack and Coke goes with good times. That’s you and me, right? Good times!”
Then there’s Glory, who suffers from autism. She isn’t getting the right education at her local public school and her family, including mother Kay (Famke Janssen), is $150,000 in debt from all the special treatments, therapies, and activities needed for Glory’s care. Because of the financial burden, Kay decides to go back to work and hire a live-in nanny to care for Glory—which is where Jack enters the picture.
Sure, Jack doesn’t have her high school degree, or any experience working with autistic children, or literally any skills that would allow her to care for Glory. But the con artist works Kay over in the interview and secures the job, which she hopes will garner her enough money to get Coke back and strike out on their own. And taking care of Glory—how hard can it be?
Of course, it’s ludicrously hard, as Jack finds out almost immediately. And her rough edges, like smoking cigarettes, cursing, and being rough with Glory aren’t unnoticed by Glory’s older brother, high school senior Robert (Israel Broussard). It’s just that he is attracted to Jack, and conflicted about whether his suspicions about her are legitimate, and unsure of how Glory will be affected if he questions Jack’s role in her life.
And so Jack of the Red Hearts seems like a story about Glory, but really it becomes a redemption vehicle for the terribleness of Jack’s character, and most of the goodwill the film wants us to feel for her doesn’t really develop. Ultimately, she’s a selfish teenage girl who takes advantage of another family’s pain and anxiety to further her own interests, and how the film skews her as this savior and advocate for Glory feels particularly forced.
There’s one point in the movie where she attaches Glory to a leash and then ties her to a fence so she can run her own errand, and then another point where she falls asleep while tanning while she’s supposed to be watching Glory, and then another when she drags her across the kitchen floor—these are terrible things to do to another person, especially a child! But Jack of the Red Hearts portrays Jack as necessary for the situation because she brings another perspective to Glory’s care, because she breaks the family out of their comfort zone, because she pushes Glory forward. But at what cost? Our utter disbelief?
The positivity and forgiveness Jack of the Red Hearts wants us to feel for Jack doesn't really come together, and so while the film does a lot of things well—like giving us Glory’s point of view, how she views the world, and how she hears her family—those things get overshadowed for this Jack redemption arc. “I just don’t want you to not like me,” Jack says to Kay at one point in the film, but Jack of the Red Hearts should have focused less on that problem and more on the other girl in the movie -- the one we care more about.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Guttenbergs