Charlie Says is one of three films to come out recently about Charles Manson, his “Family” and the Tate murders, along with the universally derided Mandy Moore vehicle The Haunting of Sharon Tate, and the upcoming Once Upon a Time In … Hollywood from Quentin Tarantino. I have not seen the others yet, but I think it’s probably safe to say that the best of the bunch will be Tarantino’s. Charlie Says seems to be stuck in the middle, and while it is well-intended, it is ultimately a little dull.
The creative team behind Charlie Says is American Psycho‘s Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner, who are certainly capable hands to tell this story. They take a slightly feminist approach by focusing mostly on the women arrested and convicted in the murders—Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón)—and their interactions in prison with Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever). The murders and their time with Charlie at the Spahn Ranch are told through flashbacks, Charlie is played by Matt Smith. He is trying a little too hard at times, and is a little bit miscast. Smith is far better suited to playing Robert Mapplethorpe in the recent Mapplethorpe, and even there he was considered miscast by some.
Telling the Manson family story on film is always going to be tricky, hence why Tarantino has used it as the background for a bigger story about Hollywood at the end of the ’60s. Often the attempts to dramatize the story have fallen into the most exploitative cliches humanly possible, with the two TV adaptations of Helter Skelter being probably the most well regarded. Charlie Says has plenty of nice touches, from use of the 13th Floor Elevators on the soundtrack to Dennis Wilson popping up in a few scenes, but it’s done all a little too tastefully, perhaps, and the budget is too small to really depict the haze of late ’60s Los Angeles.
The period detail is the best they could do on a minuscule budget, I can imagine this only costing a couple million at the very most. The performances from all the female performers are solid, nothing that stands out particularly but nor does anything stand out in a bad way. There is a great moment where Squeaky (Kayli Carter) is shown giving George Spahn, the owner of the Ranch they lived on, a hand job, as it was her job to look after George’s “needs.” Grace Van Dien appears as Sharon Tate and has some movie star charisma, but with Margot Robbie in the Tarantino film… what’s the point? It never has the depth it needs to be some definitive statement on the Manson girls, but if you, like many others, can’t wait for Once Upon a Time In … Hollywood, it’s not a bad taster for that film and probably gives an extra bit of backstory that’s not in Tarantino’s film.