Film and Plot Synopsis
Charlie Says is based on the books, The Family, by Ed Sanders, and The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten, by Karlene Faith, Ph.D. In 1971, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten were sentenced to death for their part in the Manson Murders in 1969. In 1972, their death sentences were vacated by the California Supreme Court and converted to life sentences. The film follows the journey of Karlene Faith, a young graduate student who is sent in to teach them – and through her we witness their transformations as they face the reality of their horrific crimes.
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‘Charlie Says’ Movie Summary
Charlie Says begins with Sadie, Katie, and Lulu in prison in the mid-1970’s. The three women are still very close having been kept in isolation while in the prison. The women have requested to be placed into the general population unit of the prison. The prison warden, Virginia Carlson (Annabeth Gish), has concerns for the safety of the women, as well as the other inmates, but she is also concerned about the mental health of the girls as well. She asks a prison educator, Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever), who specializes in survivors of domestic violence to work with the women to get them to see the wrongfulness of their actions.
Faith’s initial meeting with the women is shocking, as they are still under the control of Manson, although they have not seen or heard from him in years. The women believe in his goals and his agenda. Faith tries to get the girls to see the power and control relationship that they each suffered with the infamous cult leader.
The film then flashes back to Lulu joining the Manson family several months before the murders. Lulu encounters many of the famous members of the family including Mary Brunner (Suki Waterhouse), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Kayli Carter), Paul Watkins (Bridger Zadina), Sandra Good (Julia Schlaepfer), and Manson himself. The Manson compound encourages the concept of free love and is involved in drug use. However, Manson promotes a culture where the men are the dominant members of the cult and women are subservient. Nevertheless, Lulu joins the group and begins to even thrive while she is there. Manson often holds sermons that promote radical ideas.
Jumping back to the 1970’s, Faith begins to make progress with the three women. They begin to read books, something that they were forbidden to do while they were members of the family. The new books begin to challenge the ideas and concepts professed by Manson. However, Faith hits an obstacle when the women return to the delusion and shave their heads in solidarity. When asked why they drastically altered their appearances, they all tell Faith that Charlie appeared to them in the night and told them to. Faith tells Warden Carlson that the girls are obviously victims of domestic violence and respond in a text book way. However, the mind control of Manson continues in prison because the three of them constantly maintain the delusion with each other.
The film then returns to the 60’s. Lulu eventually becomes one of Manson’s harem and has sex with the cult leader. She bristles against the chauvinistic standards forced upon her in the camp. Meanwhile, Manson tries to further his music career, wishing to become a famous singer. Manson meets frequently with Dennis Wilson (James Trevena) of the Beach Boys in the hopes he will help facilitate a record deal. Eventually, Manson is told that a record deal is not going to happen. After the rejection, Manson’s sermons become angrier as he begins to advocate for violence and talks about the coming of Helter Skelter, an apocalyptic war that will arise due to the racial conflicts between the whites and blacks.
Back in the 1970’s, the women still believe that Helter Skelter will occur. Faith brings in other individuals to try to dissuade them of this belief, and she finally begins to make headway with the women. Faith also begins to worry that they may not be ready to deal with the guilt arising from their crimes.
Back in the 1960’s, Lulu is approached by a biker who asks her to go with him and leave the compound. Manson is nearby and tells her to go if she wants to. Lulu chooses to stay, but her hesitation angers Manson. He takes her out into the woods to the edge of a cliff and tells her that if she wants to leave that her way out is death, pointing to the edge of the cliff. Lulu begins to see that there is no way out of the family.
Back in the 1970’s, Faith is able to make a break through with the women. Lulu feels remorse for her involvement in the murders and relives the brutality of the crimes. She finally admits that what she did was wrong and breaks down crying. Eventually, all three of the women break Manson’s hold on them and sees their actions for what they were.
The film ends with a post script that says all three women were eventually placed in general population in 1975. Van Houten eventually renounced Manson and petitioned for early release several times, unsuccessfully. Faith has advocated for her release. Van Houten and Krenwinkel are still incarcerated in the California Institution for Women. Atkins passed away in 2009.
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