Please Stand By Is a Thoughtful But Stiff Look at Autism

Photo: Magnolia Pictures

The title of Please Stand By denotes the phrase that Wendy (Dakota Fanning), a young woman on the spectrum, repeats to herself in moments of high stress. It has been taught to her by Scottie (Toni Collette), a therapist for the group home in which Wendy and others on the autism spectrum live. Scottie also trains Wendy to make eye contact, read social cues on peoples’ faces, smile when at work (icing buns at a mall), and shower daily. One aspect of Wendy’s imaginative life on which Scottie has no impact is Wendy’s obsession with Star Trek, particularly Mr. Spock. (Too bad Wendy never thinks to say, “Beam me up, Scottie.”) For a Paramount Pictures writing contest, Wendy has been working hard on her own Star Trek script, which currently runs more than 400 pages. Much of it focuses on how Spock, in an effort to be more human, attempts to find a scientific equation for humor.

Wendy’s idea is a moving expression not just of Spock’s inner tension, but also of the fascination that so many people on the spectrum (not to mention President Barack Obama) have for the Vulcan First Officer. The key, of course, is that Spock’s mother was human, so although he was raised in a culture that identifies emotions as weak and untrustworthy, it takes will to suppress his own. When he tells McCoy in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, “You forget, doctor, I am a Vulcan, I have no feelings to hurt,” he is point-blank lying, maybe to himself as well as McCoy. Wendy, needless to say, is not as far along. Although robotic in her affect, emotions come bursting out and are apt to run riot. Hence, “Please stand by, please stand by, please stand by …” One of her principal stressors is her older sister, Audrey (Alice Eve), who is so fearful of Wendy that she won’t let her see — much less hold — Audrey’s 1-year-old daughter.

From the above you can tell that Please Stand By is thoughtful in how it dramatizes the consequences of autism. The movie is a little stiff, though. You can guess how most of its scenes will play before you even come to them, and it has a circumspect, sanitized quality, as if meant to be shown in group homes without causing undue upset. The director, Ben Lewin, made a startling, more grown-up affliction film, The Sessions, and his The Catcher Was a Spy (made after Please Stand By) is well-told and played to appreciative audiences at the current Sundance Film Festival. (The real-life protagonist of that film, Moe Berg, might have been a very high-functioning autistic — it’s hard to say.) This film is nowhere near as fresh.

The bulk of Please Stand By tracks Wendy’s escape from the home and inept journey to L.A. after she realizes that the mail won’t get her Star Trek script to Paramount by the deadline. That’s not easy for someone who doesn’t know how things work in the real world, and she’s treated rather badly by everyone from bus-station attendants (and drivers) to mail-room flunkies. The screenwriter, Michael Golamco (who adapted his own novel), gives her a couple of excellent moments, though, when she’s cleverer than we anticipate. (The one near the end is a crowd-pleaser.)

It’s hard to judge Dakota Fanning’s performance. She keeps her eyes fixed, speaks in a monotone, and seems unnatural — but, of course, people at this level on the spectrum are apt to seem unnatural. So she’s probably very good. Although Scottie is a role that Collette could play in her sleep, she remains awake and shows conviction. Then there’s Alice Eve, whose part is dreary but who’ll certainly get a reaction from any Trekkies in the audience: She was in the first of the latest crop of Star Trek features and upset some fans by playing a scene in her undies. (They felt Star Trek was above such things.) Probably the best scene features Patton Oswalt as a policeman who proves adept at a certain foreign language that’s heavy on guttural exhortations. It’s fun to imagine a cop who thinks less about tasers than phasers.

Please Stand By Is a Thoughtful But Stiff Look at Autism