“She’s not Rain Man,” says Kay (Famke Janssen) when Jack (AnnaSophia Robb) asks if her autistic daughter Glory (Taylor Richardson) is good at math.
With that quip Kay summarizes the extent of the knowledge most people have of this disorder. As it turns out, Glory has more in common with the untamed Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker” (shown in a clip), or the title feral boy of François Truffaut’s “Wild Child,” than she does with Dustin Hoffman’s cute polymath in the 1988 Oscar winner. But Janet Grillo’s “Jack of the Red Hearts” doesn’t intend to enlighten viewers about the autisKaym spectrum so much as show the toll it takes on the people whose lives it unravels.
Though Glory is no Rain Man, Jack does take after the black sheep brother of that film (played by Tom Cruise). Jack’s a scamp, a delinquent, and a free spirit with a troubled past: She and her younger sister Coke (Sophia Anne Caruso) are orphans roughed up by the sometimes callus care of family services.
Desperate to take over custody of Coke, Jack steals the identity of Donna, a therapist applying for the position of Glory’s live-in minder to help the overwhelmed Kay. During the interview Jack/Donna shows remarkable ability — not in caring for disturbed children but in lying expertly and off the cuff. She gets the job.
But before you can say the word “sociopath,” the dynamics of a well-structured genre narrative kick in. By playing the role of a caregiver, Jack/Donna not only proves effective as a therapist, but gets a little therapy for herself. She also helps loosen up the stressed-out members of Glory’s family. Her anarchic spirit at first throws them into chaos, but as Glory improves, so does everyone else.
Pretty soon Kay and her husband Scott rediscover their erotic spark and Glory’s initially ambivalent and hostile teenaged brother Robert (Israel Broussard) succumbs to Jack’s charms.
And as performed by Robb, those charms are considerable. From the opening scene she takes over the screen with a coltish toughness and mercurial charisma.
Kay is right. This is not “Rain Man”; it’s better.
JACK OF THE RED HEARTS
Directed by Janet Grillo. Written by Jennifer Deaton. Starring Famke Janssen, AnnaSophia Robb, Scott Cohen, Taylor Richardson, Israel Broussard, Sophia Anne Caruso. At Boston Common. 100 minutes. PG (thematic elements including teen behavior, language, and smoking).Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.