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.  


  1. Amy,

    Thank you so much for giving voice to your thoughts and feelings about the film. I love how movies can start conversations and let's consider this a start. First of all, let me say that we saw more hands raised in the audience and were curious and eager to hear from everyone, but in the interest of time, the Q&A was ended, with people invited to continue speaking out in the lobby. During the party afterward, various people came up and made comments or asked questions, which is a wonderful opportunity that a film festival provides, being able to talk about film with other theatergoers as well as the filmmakers. I understand, however, if you were feeling too emotionally heated to want to have a conversation at the time.

    As the screenwriter of the film, I would love to tell you about the original inspiration of the story for me. I am a neurotypical person. The character Glory is inspired by my niece Hannah, pretty severely impacted by autism. She is going to be 17 next month and she has very little voluntary language. She is still learning to read, finally learning how to spell some three letter words. I don't want to make a list of her challenges because she is so much more than those things. She has a sweet spirit, loves music, swinging, and swimming. But, just this morning I was talking to my sister-in-law -- her mother -- and together we wondered to what extent my niece understands that the family in this movie is inspired by their family.

    There was one day in particular years ago when I was babysitting my niece and it was a particularly exhausting time. When I was a girl, I was very much inspired by the story of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. That day I was babysitting, I just collapsed onto the floor and wished that I could be -or someone could be- an Annie Sullivan to help break through to my niece - or help my niece break out of where she was, unable to communicate with us.

    As you probably know, Annie Sullivan was not a qualified therapist to work with a blind and deaf and mute Helen Keller. Annie was half blind herself, untrained, and a young ward of the state. Parentless. But she made a difference. So I thought that perhaps a modern day street kid who has learned to lie to survive, untrained, would be my modern day Annie Sullivan. Certain scenes in the movie are direct homages to the play "The Miracle Worker," including the violent yam scene which makes all of us uncomfortable.

    It was that story I was trying to tell - the story of an unlikely hero -someone who didn't even consider herself qualified- being able to make a difference, even though she was herself damaged, not even having good intentions at first.

    We all need to believe that we can make a difference, with our flawed and flailing efforts, in whatever situation we face. I wasn't attempting to tell a story that captured the truth of all people who are on the spectrum of autism, because that would be more like a documentary. I created one character with autism, informed by my and my family's close observation of a girl we love - but not informed by the girl herself because, regrettably, at least for now, she is not able to tell us. Believe me, I long for the day for her to be able to say "Auntie Jen, your movie got me all wrong and let me tell you how it really is to be me."

    Jennifer Christine Deaton, screenwriter

    1. Dear Jennifer,

      I also hope that one day your niece will be able to express herself in a way that you can comprehend. And I hope that when she does, she isn't dismissed and patronised the way you've just done to Amy here.

      I mean, did you consider that Autistic people might watch your film, too? Did you think about what we might think as we watched some of our own experiences play out on screen? Did you really expect us to relate to the so-called Anne Sullivan character whose actions were borderline abusive?

      Or do you believe that we who are able to do things like sit quietly in a cinema and compose a blog post have nothing in common with your niece, and therefore couldn't possibly understand "what it's really like"? Because if that's the case, then you know nothing (Jon Snow).

      No one is expecting you to tell a story that encompasses all the experiences of all Autistic people, because that would be impossible. On the other hand, you can't create what amounts to a caricature and then absolve yourself of responsibility by claiming that it's based on someone you know. Unless you're making a documentary, and you've been clear that this isn't the case, then this is a lot bigger than your family and Glory's portrayal does matter.

      Newsflash: We are like your niece. We may not look exactly like her in the moment, but I guarantee that most of us can relate. Some of us are the product of countless hours of therapy to be as functional as we are. Some of us still struggle in ways that you can't tell by looking (or reading).

      And you know what the real irony is? Every time you dismiss one of us, you are hurting your own niece... by affirming the hostile environment we deal with every dam day.

      We deserve better. All of us. That goes for you and your family, too.



  2. Wish I could say that I am surprised by the patronising response from the screenwriter (above), but sadly it's pretty much par for the course whenever we disabled folks dare to say that we aren't happy about the way we're portrayed in most art forms. This movie was pretty much a by-the-numbers Inspiration Porn piece. I agree 100% with your assessment, Amy. We deserve better.

  3. I am a mother of two little autistic boys... 5 and 3. I have been sitting on this film for a while now, raising the courage to watch it. Mainly because the trailer showed Glory be having in very similar ways to my oldest boy and it was quite emotional for me.

    Well I finally got around to watching it and i felt like vomiting. The treatment of Glory by Jack made my blood run cold. Using commands used by dog trainers, the whole undercurrent of "curing autism". It was absolute garbage. Not one second given to the concept of neurodiversity. Nothing about the mother changing her viewpoint just a little about autism.

    My boys are both currently non verbal, not toilet trained when My oldest attends a special school. We have challenges this family but i would not change a thing about them because the delight and joy they brinf to us by being themselves makes my heart explode. I am fascinated by how they see the world.

    They both see and IT and speech therapist but everything is play based and led by them. We are introducing speech generating devices. We want them to lead their beat lives no matter how that looks.

    I can only imagine how autistic adult would have felt watching it. I will also say that I'm not a violent person but if anyone treated my beautiful, complex and amazinf kids the way Jack did, there would be hell to pay.