Sunday, April 24, 2016

Review: Jack of the Red Hearts

[Image is: a Jack of Hearts playing card]


Once upon a time, Jack of the Red Hearts was just the type of movie I would have LOVED to see.  Back when I was majoring in Special Education in college, and didn't know that what I was being taught as gospel (ABA, and repetition of babyish tasks and use of short sentences when working with autistic kids) was, in fact, apocryphal.

I saw a brief commercial for Jack of the Red Hearts on Friday, while watching Grey's Anatomy on Lifetime.  This brief glimpse was enough to raise several red flags about the movie's content.  However, having been a fan of the largely authentic job AnnaSophia Robb did portraying Bethany Hamilton in the movie Soul Surfer, I was hoping to find something redeeming in the movie, even if only that AnnaSophia Robb was in it.

I was so, so mistaken.

I'm going to use these Common Inspiration Porn Themes to assist in pointing out what I found harmful in Jack of the Red Hearts:

1. Participation Trophies

Glory, who is eleven years old, and autistic was never made out to be more special than her neurotypical peers.  (Not that I could see, anyway.  If I missed a reference to this, any autistic friends are welcome to comment and let me know.)

So, we're off to a good start.

2. Able-Bodied / Neurotypical Heroes

Jack of the Red Hearts was rife with neurotypical heroes.  Jack, Glory's companion, first and foremost.

This is beyond disturbing because of the way Jack treats Glory.  There are copious references to The Miracle Worker, with a couple of scenes taken directly from the original source material with very little changed.  Though the screenwriter apparently wanted to draw a parallel between Jack and Annie Sullivan ("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...") it's impossible for me not to think there were not also inferred parallels between Glory and Helen Keller, who was portrayed as a wild child or an untamed animal.  Glory goes around the table asking for potatoes and eating them off everyone's plates, as the family carries on as if nothing is amiss.  The finger is silently pointing at Glory, making out her behavior to be that of a disturbed child, rather than a result of what her parents tolerated.

When Glory arrives at Jack's place at the table, she tries to take Jack's potatoes, but Jack won't allow it.  Glory pinches Jack, and Jack pinches Glory back.  While Glory's mom is momentarily upset Jack is allowed to continue working with their daughter.  When Glory pinches Jack at school, Jack again retaliates, and when other adults at school see this, Jack shrugs and says, "It works."

Jack is allowed to keep her job, and later takes Glory on a personal errand, where she ties a belt around Glory's waist and then ties the belt to a gate.  She gives her a snack and tells her to "stay."  An eleven year old child is tied to a gate in public, treated like an animal, and no one is bothered by this?  Ironically, Jack's own injuries (scraped palms from pounding the pavement in frustration) are the only things commented upon by Glory's mother.  It was beyond abhorrent to see a child abused in this manner and to have this movie pass it off as a misstep in Jack's work with Glory.  Glory is a little girl, and vulnerable, at that.  How blatant abuse can be depicted on screen and yet we, the audience are still cued to feel sympathy for Jack's own personal plight instead of for the little girl she tied to a gate is beyond me.

3. People As Props

The screen writer has said in interviews that this was the story about how autism impacts families.  So, Glory really is just a means to an end.  The movie centers quite a bit on her but it isn't about Glory at all.  It's not about what she contributes.  It's not about what she gives.  Who she is.  It's just about her autism's effect on her family and Jack.

Glory's mom says Glory has an "exceptional personality."  But we see little of it.  Most of what Glory says and does is cued.  She spends much of the movie working on naming shapes, colors and animals.  I couldn't help but think about a couple of little autistic boys who spent years learning material far below their grade level because they could not prove they had absorbed the knowledge.  I have read about how damaging it was for them to consistently be treated like babies.

I can't help thinking, too, that the casting of a non-autistic girl as Glory only adds to the notion that the autistic character is an object.  While on the surface, the portrayal of autism seems authentic, many times Glory's facial expressions and manner made her seem like a spoiled brat, knowingly doing naughty things to get a reaction, rather than a child who struggled to feel and control her own body and/or speech.

4. Gawking Without Talking

Glory, essentially does not have a speaking part whatsoever in this film.  Even when her actions clearly communicate something, her requests are ignored unless she is able to verbalize them.

At the end of the film, when Jack has to leave, Glory approaches her, and extends one hand in front of her.  She does this again, and again, and again, using the rudimentary signs that Jack knew from training a dog (how's that for dehumanizing?) but Jack insists she "say it."

Except for telling Jack she wants her to "stay", Glory rarely is allowed to communicate.  She is handled roughly.  She is stopped from stimming.  She is told her nonverbal communication is not enough.

5. SuperParent

Clearly, Glory's parents, particularly her mom, are meant to be sympathetic.  We, the audience are supposed to see what they "put up with" regarding Glory's autism, and feel like they are amazing people.  I, for one, felt zero sympathy for them.

Glory's dad talks about how parenting Glory feels like they are coworkers "in a mental hospital."  Her mom drinks from a CURE AUTISM NOW mug, which drives home how much they view her autism as a problem to fix, and not an important part of what makes Glory who she is as a person, and impacts how she sees the world.  Her mom also tells Jack that Glory "can talk if she wants to...if she is motivated" which is so harmful because it ignores the brain/body disconnect that many autistics have said they experience.  Later, Glory's mom talks about how awful autism is while Glory is in the back seat of the car, listening to everything.

Jack seems to realize soon enough that Glory requires adaptive equipment (headphones and sunglasses among other things) to deal with sensory overload in public places.  Her parents, though not clueless about this aspect of her autism, are not prepared with these items when Glory needs them, and instead, it's left to Jack who just shows up by chance with them.

At the end of the movie, Glory has an interview at a school that seems to be heavily based on ABA therapy, which many autistics say is tantamount to child abuse.  Sending Glory to this school is shown to be the family's best option as they are all "tired" from taking care of Glory and they are losing Jack, as Glory's one-to-one.

There were a couple of instances where Glory's mom joined her in stimming.  (The first day of her new job, she came home happy and jumped up and down beside her daughter for a second.)  There was a second moment, too, where Mom, Jack and Glory are all jumping on the trampoline in the yard together.

However, this review is largely cautionary.  I remain deeply troubled by the number of people (especially parents with autistic children) who viewed this movie as positive media representation.

There is nothing positive about media that depicts and endorses harming autistic children.

For anyone wanting more insight into the autistic experience, please hear these autistic voices:

Fox at Fox Talks With Letters

Ryan at i am in my head.

Phillip at Faith, Hope and Love...With Autism


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  1. THANK YOU! I watched this movie, expecting it to be an inaccurate portrayal of autistic people, as most media is, but the family being held up as long-suffering heroes when they repeatedly treated their daughter like a naughty puppy and not a person was difficult. I started to really get uncomfortable at the first mention of ABA. I didn't even get to the gate scene. I turned it off at the dinner scene. It was disturbing to me. I'm shocked so many people with autistic children found this watchable, let alone good.

    1. The main reason I wrote this review was that the ONLY reviews I could find on this movie held it up as the most amazing portrayal of autism (and by "autism" they obviously meant "how autism effects families") ever. The movie's content and the public's response was so disturbing, I felt I had to say something.

  2. The movie was inspired by script writer Jennifer Deaton's niece who has autism. So I'm guessing she's writing from her own experiences.

    1. Hi Zahra!

      Yes, I'm aware. Still a very harmful portrayal, though :(