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Jack of the Red Hearts
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by Jay Seaver

"Well-intentioned but off the mark."
2 stars

I don't know much about raising kids or autism, let alone the combination of the two, but I probably know just enough to find "Jack of the Red Hearts" a bit more alarming than it was perhaps meant to be. The filmmakers just don't seem to have enough darkness in their heart to be cruel to their characters or audience, even if the alternative seems to be trying to sell a good outcome that comes from bad decisions.

"Jack", in this case, is short for "Jacqueline", the name of an eighteen-year-old dropout (AnnaSophia Robb) who is already mastering the basics of con artistry and is for obvious reasons considered a bad influence on the sister still in the foster care system (Sophia Anne Caruso), even if she's not the one who gave the younger girl the nickname "Coke". Kay (Famke Jansen), on the other hand, is the mother of autistic eleven-year-old Glory (Taylor Richardson), looking to hire a companion for her daughter and go back to work. Jack waylays the actual highly-qualified caregiver and takes her place, only to find that not only is Glory a low-functioning handful without a savant upside, but there's also a cute son (Israel Broussard) who quickly develops both a crush on the supposedly mid-twenties "Donna" and suspicions that she's not what she seems.

This seems like a fairly unlikely set-up to start with - Kay and her husband Mark (Scott Cohen) seem engaged and worried enough where their daughter's care is concerned to hire someone without an interview and pay her cash under the table even if money is tight, though that's the only way this story works - and it never deals with that sensibly. Director Janet Grillo and writer Jennifer Deaton have everybody suspect far too little until something really obvious happens, and they're so intent on making a story about characters trying to overcome family challenges that they can't do anything with how Jack is being predatory, either as black comedy or just to make her inevitable growth into a less selfish person a greater accomplishment.

But the film is too sincere for that. Autism has been a constant enough theme in Grillo's previous films as both director and producer that it must be something she has a personal connection to, and it's hard to fault her earnest efforts to educate the audience on the different methods used to educate autistic children, or that early action is important, or that it can be hard for the others in the family because of all the attention that this child gets, and so on. It's informative and the filmmakers never seem to be going too far out of their way to make these points (although it's not exactly subtle, either), but it often means that the story takes a back seat. As much as I'm not inclined to argue with Grillo's depiction of living with autism, there's something uncomfortable about the way Glory is depicted at times - maybe it does help to teach autistic children in much the same way you'd train dogs, but as a viewer, you almost need some acknowledgment that it's weird so as to not be uncomfortable for the wrong reasons.

The cast is fine, though it's a group where one hopes for more despite none of them having great track records: Scott Cohen has worked constantly enough to seem familiar, if not for any specific thing, and he's nicely leveling as the father, and Israel Broussard seems like an amiable enough young actor who can make odd behavior work until it's explained. Taylor Richardson certainly sells Glory. AnnaSophia Robb intially seems short-changed in that we only see Jack briefly before she's "Donna" almost full-time, but it turns into a nice little example of an actor playing a person playing a part but not up to the level of a professional actor. Famke Janssen plays Kay as a little frantic, but finds something engaging in how she's become a little off as a result of spending so much of her time trying to deal with Glory.

There are many worse movies worse than "Jack of the Red Hearts" out there, but even though this one clearly has its heart in the right place, it's also a movie where good intentions are apparently much more powerful than expertise or reasonable actions. There are situations where one can get away with that, but it takes much more finesse or moxie than this particular film displays.

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originally posted: 03/03/16 16:42:25
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  26-Feb-2016 (PG)



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