Jack of the Red Hearts


Famke Janssen prays for strength.

Famke Janssen prays for strength.

(2015) Drama (ARC Entertainment) AnnaSophia Robb, Famke Janssen, Scott Cohen, Taylor Richardson, Israel Broussard, John D’Leo, Sophia Anne Caruso, Drena De Niro, Chris Jarell, Tonye Patano, Maria Rivera, Preston Fritz Smith, Ana Maria Jomoica, Stephen Hill, Nan Lynn Nelson, Harry Sutton Jr., Drena De Niro, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Jenny Jaffe, Brianna Mann, Christine Toy Johnson. Directed by Janet Grillo

Autism is something that is often written about and occasionally depicted on the movie screen but rarely does it show what it means day to day to a family with an autistic child, particularly a low-functioning one. As the mom here snaps at an insensitive remark about her autistic daughter, “She’s not Rain Man.” Sadly, the movies give an image of autism as a kind of cute disease turning the folks that have it into happy idiots. That’s as far from the truth as can be.

Jack (Robb) is a street-smart, street-tough kid who has just turned 18. She and her sister Coke (Caruso) have been in and out of foster homes and juvenile detention for years. Jack’s probation officer (Patano) is pretty much fed up with her and is ready to send her to adult jail this time, now that she’s old enough. Jack wants nothing more than to get Coke out of the system so the two can live together and take care of each other.

But Jack’s going to need money to get an apartment for them if that’s going to happen and something more stable – a real job that pays well, but Jack has no employment experience. With the help of a friend she connives her way as a caregiver into the household of Kay (Janssen), Mark (Cohen), Robert (Broussard) and autistic Glory (Richardson).

The bills have been piling up and they can no longer afford Kay staying home and caring for Glory, but the child needs full-time supervision and the family needs two incomes and quite frankly, Kay needs the break, worn down from caring for a child who is no easy task. Jack, a born hustler, convinces the actual applicant (Jaffe) to leave her resume and references with her and then Jack assumes the identity of Donna, a well-qualified caregiver. Of course, Jack knows nothing about caring for an autistic 11-year-old but she figures how hard can it be?

Well, any actual parent of an autistic child will tell you that it can be terrifyingly hard. Autistic kids, depending on the type of autism, can lash out, go into trance-like states, be stubborn as mules, obsess with odd items, require rigid conformity and/or act out in very violent and public ways, often when it is least convenient. The thing the movie gets right is that caring for a child who has difficulty functioning can break a parent down; this is their child whom they love and they can’t hold a conversation with them, or at least only a rudimentary one. It requires extreme patience and an amazing amount of love.

What it doesn’t require is a stock character from an Afterschool Special who is about as badass as Taylor Swift saving the day. The script is riddled with clichés and as predictable as the Cubs missing the playoffs. Robb is a talented actress but she is reduced to face-scrunching, high-level mugging and when called upon to smoke (which she does because, you know, street kid) she’s the most unconvincing smoker ever, clearly not inhaling. I’d much rather that Jack be a non-smoker than be an approximation of one.

I’ve met several autistic kids in my life, some more high functioning than others but Richardson is completely unconvincing in the role. Her smile is like she’s posing for a head shot and when she’s screaming and acting out, I don’t see in her performance how incredibly intense this acting out can be. The best way to think about it is that she’s pretending to smile rather than actually smiling. Now, I’m fully aware that every autistic kid is different and some may well smile like they’re in a toy commercial, but it comes off as non-genuine here and it is distracting overall to the movie. Richardson has a history of playing Annie onstage, so you know she’s got talent, but this was a definite misfire and I blame the director, who should know better.

I liked Janssen’s performance as the long-suffering mom. Janssen clearly gets how stressed out Kay is and how bone-weary she is. When Janssen gets the chance to act with silence, she is marvelous – conveying far more of the parental experience with her eyes and her facial expression than the script is doing. Sadly there is so much that the script does that stops the movie dead in its tracks, like a family sing-along that feels completely in-authentic and the denouement in which is exactly what you think it will be. Even the plot twists aren’t twists so much as lane changes.

I really give the filmmakers credit for wanting to make a film about how autism affects the entire family, and there is a great movie to be made on the subject, but this really isn’t it. Too many predictable plot points, unconvincing acting from the two actors who needed to be at their best and just pedestrian filmmaking torpedo what should have been a compelling film. Janssen’s performance is worth checking out but that only takes the movie so far; a very mild and disappointing recommendation.

REASONS TO GO: Janssen is compelling as the mom. An inside look at the life of a family with an autistic child.
REASONS TO STAY: With a predictable movie-of-the-week plot, loses some of its credibility. Robb and Richardson give subpar performances.
FAMILY VALUES: Depictions of teen misbehavior, adult subject matter, teen smoking and some mildly foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Grillo in real life is the mother of an autism spectrum child.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Molly
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Legendary

Tenderness


Tenderness

Russell Crowe isn't happy that some joker put his running shoes on the memorial.

(2009) Thriller (Lionsgate) Russell Crowe, Jon Foster, Sophie Traub, Alexis Dziena, Laura Dern, Michael Kelly, Vivienne Benesch, Tanya Clarke, Tim Hopper, Brian Russell, Lee Sellars, Lou Sumrall, Arija Bareikis. Directed by John Polson

We are all of us victims of our own nature. We can’t escape it, although we often try. We can’t fight it, although we make the attempt. We can hide it, but sooner or later our true nature emerges, the face behind the mask; sometimes, heaven help the person who witnesses it.

Eric Komenko (Foster) was brought up by strictly religious parents who blew a gasket when they found out he was having sex. Eric didn’t like that; he didn’t like it at all – so he killed them. He was arrested and tried, where a persistent pattern of abuse emerged. A sympathetic jury gave him a light sentence so he was sent to juvenile detention where he is just being released after a few years, now an adult.

He is being watched by Lt. Cristofuoro (Crowe), the tenacious semi-retired police officer who originally arrested Eric and who thinks he will inevitably kill again and has killed others before, people whom the parole board didn’t take into account. The policeman’s wife is in a coma (for reasons never fully explained in the film), so he spends a good deal of time (when not stalking Eric, who now goes by the last name of Poole) at the hospital – when he’s not pontificating in the form of voiceovers. Then again, his name transfers as “Christ’s fire” so you do the math.  

He’s not the only one watching Eric. Lori Cranston (Traub), an abused girl who has a prior connection to Eric, stows away in his trunk as he drives to Funland, where he has agreed to meet a girl (Dziena) that he’d met in prison. What Eric’s intentions are can be summed up thusly – not good. What Lori wants isn’t clear; a quick way out – maybe. Romance with a convicted killer? Possibly. Revenge? The Magic 8-Ball isn’t clear on that point. Maybe she’s working with the police to get Eric arrested and sent back to prison; maybe she isn’t. What is clear is that by the time the movie ends, someone is going to see Eric’s true nature, for better or for worse.

While the movie is based on a Robert Cormier novel, it is more of a mess than you might think. There doesn’t seem to be any clear point to the film; there’s a lot of mumbo jumbo uttered by a bored-sounding Crowe on the voiceover on the roles of pleasure and pain in life but by and large, we do get (most of us anyway) that pain sucks for a lot longer than pleasure doesn’t with or without the help of the filmmakers.

Crowe is the nominal star of the movie but it’s a glorified cameo; he does do the voiceover narration but most of his scenes are without the leading players. He’s solid enough as the rumpled cop, but he doesn’t have a lot to work with. Foster is pretty much the main man here, and his character is a walking jumble of complexities; he doesn’t really have the chops to pull it off but quite frankly, I’m not sure anybody does.

Traub doesn’t do a bad job as the somewhat conflicted Lori, but the script is so all over the map that it’s hard to really get a line on what she wants and what motivates her. There is a little epilogue that gives you some insight into her mindset but at the end of the ballgame, it’s too little too late.

I wish I could have liked this movie more – there were some interesting concepts and some nice psychology to it. Unfortunately, the script never really develops them and by the time the movie comes to a grinding halt, you might well be too involved in texting your friends or playing on your laptop to notice.

WHY RENT THIS: Some interesting psychological studies are to be found. Crowe is solid although unspectacular.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lots of potential but doesn’t quite deliver. Foster doesn’t quite carry off the complexity of the lead role.

FAMILY VALUES: Along with the inevitable bad language, there’s some disturbing sexual and violent content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Crowe was only on set for nine days and filmed all his scenes in that time.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Wicker Man