My wife and I have both been diagnosed with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), and as film lovers we’ve been fascinated with depictions of Autism in the movies and the way certain movies and characters resonate with Autistic audience members. “Autie or Ain’t He” is a new recurring column that will be appearing here on the first of every month (more often if interest grows). It will attempt to explore specific films and trends in the movies that pertain to the condition. We’ll be looking at three general areas:
- Films featuring overtly autistic characters. (Adam, Rain Man, The Accountant).
- Films about characters who aren’t specifically autistic but can be viewed as possessing autistic qualities (Benny & Joon, Being There).
- Films about characters who aren’t autistic in any way, but whom autistics identify with due to certain qualities (Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, superheroes like the X-Men).
This column contains no scientific data and isn’t intended as formal research. It’s simply observations from someone recently diagnosed on the spectrum. We welcome ideas for column topics, as well as options for specific movies that anyone would like to see covered.
Depictions of Autism in the movies are gaining traction as the condition becomes better known, which can give those on the spectrum pause. As with any other condition, Autism is complex, and Hollywood’s ability to simplify everything in the name of Making Sure Everyone Gets It can spell disaster. Please Stand By succeeds in part because it avoids that slide into short-hand. Instead, it attempts to illustrate how Autistics approach the challenges of the world and the way that impacts those around them. And it finds a clever way to do it through the prism of the Hero’s Journey.
Wendy (Dakota Fanning) certainly knows how the Hero’s Journey works. She’s mad about Star Trek and labors night and day to complete a script for an upcoming contest. She also lives in a home for Autistics, sent there by her sister Audrey (Alice Eve) before the birth of her new niece. Wendy’s condition makes Audrey nervous when it comes to the baby, leaving Wendy wrestling with serious abandonment issues. But she has to get her script to Hollywood, and when her calculations fail to take a postal holiday into account, the walls come crumbling down. When she realizes she missed the mailing deadline, she resolves to go AWOL and deliver it by hand to the studio herself.
Director Ben Lewin has the daunting task of taking the overly familiar contours of a young person challenging herself, and demonstrating exactly how and why this particular task is so important to Wendy. It needs to be essentially upbeat, yet contain an air of genuine danger. It needs to shy away from easy emotional shorthand, and show the impact of the condition on both her and those around her. That’s a tricky mix, but Lewin handles it quite well. He keeps the focus less on the specifics of Wendy’s journey – she meets the usual mixture of challenges, creeps and unexpected aid on the road – than on the reasons it matters so much to her.
Wendy’s resentment stems from the fact that her sister won’t trust her with the baby. She launches her road trip to demonstrate her capabilities: aided by a penchant for disappearing quickly and a singularity of purpose that helps her skate around potential trouble. Auties (and those close to them) will recognize her lines of reasoning immediately, and while she’s unable to function in certain ways, the film profoundly understands the quietly extraordinary things she can do as well.
Please Stand By also does well by not ignoring the people around her: notably Audrey and Scottie (Toni Collette), the head of the center going out of her mind with worry for the girl. It doesn’t try to take sides. It simply demonstrates how communication can be fractured and difficult when it comes to ASD, and how neurotypicals struggle to understand just as Autistics struggle to be heard. Details matter in those moments: a conversation between the two sisters who bring vastly different agendas to the table, for instance, or the way Wendy gets around her guilt at breaking the rules by covering the pertinent “NO” sign with her hand. It’s hard to fake such details, and the filmmakers’ dedication to getting it right (particularly with Fanning’s central performance) pay dividends in the final product.
Star Trek, too, play a big role in the film, and if nothing else, Please Stand By plays as a very sweet love letter to Trekkies everywhere. Wendy makes sense of the world through Trek, and this script – for better or worse – is her magnum opus. The film finds a very satisfying way to pay that off: validating her dedication without devolving into fairy-tale wish fulfillment. More importantly, it demonstrates how shared universes and storytelling help Auties interpret the world more readily, and make connections that they might not be able to otherwise. There’s a moment of geek bonding between her and Patton Oswalt (playing a friendly policeman) that absolutely breaks the heart. (How is Oswalt always sneaking in under the radar with these things?)
The journey itself matters less than the particular steps that this character needs to take, and within that realm, Please Stand By finds its heart. In the process, it delivers a nuanced way of explaining the condition clearly, and in its best moments lends insight into how and why Autistics behave the way they do. The strong cast holds it together when the plot treads into overly familiar territory, and its gentle tone keeps it from veering into emotion-porn. It’s also another sign that Fanning has well and truly graduated from child star roles and is ready for the big leagues. I don’t know what she’s going to do next, but I very much want to see what it is.
Please Stand By is currently playing in theaters and available to rent on Amazon.