'Jack of the Red Hearts': Film Review

Jack of the Red Hearts Still - H 2016
Courtesy of Sun Dial Pictures

Jack of the Red Hearts Still - H 2016

Powerfully depicts the challenges of caring for an autistic child.

A teenage runaway cons her way into a job as a caregiver for an autistic child in Janet Grillo's drama.

The subject of autism is clearly dear to Janet Grillo's heart. The mother of a child on the autistic spectrum, the filmmaker has previously dealt with the topic in the Emmy Award-winning Autism: The Musical, which she executive produced, and her feature directorial debut, 2011's Fly Away. Now, in collaboration with screenwriter/co-producer Jennifer Deaton (the aunt of an autistic child herself), Grillo delivers the moving drama Jack of the Red Hearts.

Cannily aware that audiences may be resistant to the subject matter, the film adds some mild suspense to the mix. The central character is teenager Jack (AnnaSophia Robb), a tough, runaway orphan who, in a desperate attempt to raise money to care for her younger sister Coke (Sophia Anne Caruso), brazenly talks herself into a job as a caregiver for Glory (Taylor Richardson), a severely autistic 11-year-old girl.

Assuming the identity of a therapist named Donna, Jack is hired by Glory's beleaguered parents, Kay (Famke Janssen) and Scott (Scott Cohen), whose relationship is beginning to fray under the pressure. Kay is particularly thrilled to have the help, since she's had to sacrifice her career to care for her child. Less welcoming is Glory's older brother Robert (Israel Broussard), although he can't help but be excited about the new caregiver's hotness.

Not surprisingly, "Donna" has more than a few awkward moments dealing with her charge, but her quick thinking and street smarts rescue her from myriad mistakes. She begins to warm to the assignment, getting some tips from watching the film The Miracle Worker, and embarks on a tentative romance with Robert. She also finds herself bonding with Glory, who, despite such occasional lapses as wandering off to her favorite park, starts showing signs of improvement.

The story moves along in fairly predictable beats, including the inevitable denouement in which Jack's deception is exposed. But it's effective nonetheless, thanks to the authentic-feeling depiction of the physical and emotional toll of caring for an autistic child. We also get an illuminating insight into the latter's perspective via several sequences shot from Glory's POV.

And the filmmakers seem to relish the opportunity to puncture some common myths about autism, such as the notion that everyone with the condition is an idiot savant. When Jack/Donna innocently asks Kay if her daughter is a math whiz, Kay wearily responds, "She's not Rain Man."

The performances are first-rate. Robb makes her character's unlikely deception believable and even sympathetic; Janssen and Cohen easily evoke empathy as the desperate parents; and Richardson (currently playing a similar role in the off-Broadway play Smokefall) renders Glory's challenges with precise believability.

Distribution: ARC Entertainment
Production: Sundial Pictures
Cast: AnnaSophia Robb, Famke Janssen, Scott Cohen, Israel Broussard, Taylor Richardson
Director-executive producer: Janet Grillo
Screenwriter: Jennifer Deaton
Producers: Lucy Mkerjee-Brown, Morgan White, Stefan Nowicki, Joey Carey
Director of photography: Hillary Spera
Production designer: Jimena Azula
Editor: Jim Curtis Mol
Costume designer: Mirren Gordon-Crozier
Composers: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Casting: Henry Russell Bergstein, Allison Estrin, Jennifer Smith, Tricia Wood, Deborah Aquila

Rated PG, 100 minutes