Monday, September 28, 2015

Autism in the Movies: Thoughts on "Jack of the Red Hearts"

On September 24th, I had the opportunity to attend the opening night gala of the Golden Door Film Festival in Jersey City, New Jersey, which included a screening of the film Jack of the Red Hearts.

I hadn't known much about the movie beforehand, but several of the filmmakers were present at the event, including director Janet Grillo, writer Jennifer Deaton, and actors Famke Janssen (Kay), AnnaSophia Robb (Jack), and Taylor Richardson (Glory). 

[From left: Famke Janssen, AnnaSophia Robb, and Taylor Richardson in Jack of the Red Hearts.]
The movie centers around teenage runaway Jack (Robb), who cons her way into the home and life of a girl on the autism spectrum (Richardson) and her family in an effort to rescue and obtain custody of her own sister from foster care. When a young woman answers the family's advertisement (placed, strangely enough, via the use of a flyer with tearaway pieces of paper at the bottom) for a companion for Glory, Jack deceives the clearly-qualified woman into thinking the job's been filled, takes her résumé, and passes herself off as this person instead.

From this moment on, I knew exactly where the film was going and what was going to happen. I knew perhaps because this particular movie trope has been used before, especially in movies featuring disabled people. I knew because this was a movie made by someone who knows autism--albeit from the outside--and needed a way to make autism accessible to those who don't. And I knew that I have sympathized and identified with neurotypical (NT) characters in movies for years--largely due to few other options--but that somewhere, a decision was made that a typical audience couldn't be expected to sympathize with a little autistic girl, thus necessitating the addition of an NT protagonist.

It's no secret that I am a fairly sensitive person, and without a doubt, Jack of the Red Hearts struck a deep nerve. I'm not sure if "triggered" is the right word, but the film brought a great many memories rushing back and elicited an emotional response from me--but not necessarily in the good way. 

In actuality, as I sat there watching this film, I found myself fighting the urge to get up and leave the theater on several occasions. One occurred early on, when the mother of the autistic girl (Janssen) was holding and drinking from a coffee mug with the words "CURE AUTISM NOW" emblazoned on it in large letters. 

Another was witnessing the abusive--and there really is no other word for it but "abusive"--behavior of Jack toward Glory. Tying Glory to a fence with a leash as though she were an animal, when not neglecting her altogether. Forcing herself into Glory's personal space and brusquely demanding, "What's wrong with you?" Despite the film's insistence that I do so, I felt no sympathy for Jack, and instead recoiled at the thought of anyone like her ever being remotely near a person on the spectrum. 

We're presented with the tragedy of Jack's life, and made to place her desperation on par with Glory's family's desperation, and that somehow they both needed each other, even if they didn't know it. But I am an adult on the autism spectrum, and before that, I was a child with autism--a little girl, not too unlike Glory. What I wanted more than anything was to have a friend, and had a Jack-like figure been part of my life and then left as abruptly as she came into it, it would have hurt me tremendously. Jack's life might have been screwed up and rife with anguish, but that did and does not give her the right to wreak havoc on someone else's--least of all, Glory, a vulnerable child who would become attached to her and view her as a friend.

There was a Q&A with the filmmakers after the movie ended, and I had hoped for some insight into the decisions made in the process of creating this movie. What I learned instead was that, of all the people standing on that stage, only one or two truly seemed to "get" autism. I managed to push aside my emotions in favor of steeled strength and raised my hand to ask a question, but unfortunately I was not called on. I did not expect the members of the cast to have an in-depth knowledge of autism, but to hear some of the crew speak as they did made me realize just how much work there is still to be done.

When making any movie about autism, or featuring a character that has autism--a character that, in this case, was not actually played by an autistic actress--it is vitally important to receive and listen to feedback from individuals on the spectrum. Had the creators of Jack of the Red Hearts done this, I can almost guarantee that the film's climactic scene would've been completely different, as what was set up to be a poignant moment was, for me, a degrading and uncomfortable exercise in cinematic absurdity. 

I wish I could say that this film moved me. I wish I could say that I am so thrilled that there is a movie about a girl with autism as a central figure, and that I wholeheartedly recommend it to any and all those whose lives are touched by autism. But I cannot separate the dramatized elements of this movie from reality, because I have lived the reality, and the film's flaws are too troubling to overlook. I have no doubt that the intentions of the film's director and writer were entirely good, but the overall execution could have been so much better.

To say I was disappointed by Jack of the Red Hearts is putting it mildly. Individuals on the autism spectrum deserve more than being portrayed as burdens on the people around us. Movies entertain, but they also inform, and autistic people 
are certainly compelling enough to be the voices of our own narrative, to be the ones informing the world about what autism is and what our lives are like. Hopefully one day filmmakers will realize this, and give us a chance to speak for ourselves on screen.

And when the time comes, I know people will sit up and listen.