In the last few years, audiences are witnessing a continuous effort by Hollywood creators to portray individuals on the autism spectrum as realistically as possible. From TV series like The Good Doctor and Atypical to The Accountant and Po, autism has come a long way since the 1980’s movie Rain Man.
However, many will argue that these are just baby steps and that the road to accurately depicting the spectrum is long and windy. And as such, the ‘Please Stand By’ Movie is yet another stepping-stone on that path.
The uplifting and groundbreaking movie features a young woman (Dakota Fanning) struggling to overcome fears and challenges while pursuing her dreams is a welcome addition. Though somewhat improbable in its storyline details, ‘Please Stand By’ depicts women with autism in a positive light.
Plot of ‘Please Stand By’ Movie
At first glance, the storyline looks like a typical road trip adventure of an obsessed fan, rather than coming of age tale of a heroine facing her challenges.
At the opening of the movie, we are introduced to Wendy who presumably has autism though it is never mentioned by name.Wendy lives in a very structured environment that helps her cope with daily activities. From choosing her clothing, to never crossing the busy Market street it is all written down in her notebook and memorized. She even has a mantra ‘ Please Stand By’ devised by her empathetic group home therapist Scottie (Toni Collette) to help calm down during meltdowns.
As an avid Star Trek fan, she watches the series reruns daily and identifies with Spock who has difficulty with emotions and values logic above everything.Yet the San Francisco home isn’t where Wendy wants to be. She longs to return to her childhood home to live with her sister Audrey (Alice Fey).
What she doesn’t realize is that her sister now married and mother to a baby has put the family home on the market. Furthermore, she is uncomfortable with her sister even meeting her baby in light of Wendy’s recurrent meltdowns.
Wendy sees an opportunity to earn the monies to buy back the childhood home and her sister’s respect by entering a star trek script contest.Unfortunately, she doesn’t get to mail the script in time and decides to travel (with an adorable pup in tow) to Los Angeles to bring it to Paramount Studios in person.
What ensues is a journey filled with trials and tribulations that force Wendy outside her comfort zone. On the way, she meets people from all walks of life some nicer than others all the while running away from her frantic sister and caregiver.
How easy is it to follow the story
I watched the movie with my own son with autism, and we both found the plot endearing and well paced.The fact that Wendy decides to run away to pursue her dream resonated with both of us.
Just last summer our own son wandered away and embarked on a mini adventure of his own. More than seventy miles away from home he too ended up relying on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter. Like Wendy, he lost his prized possession his laptop but learned a valuable lesson along the way.
The story is relatively easy to follow and understand. That’s not to say it isn’t multi-layered. The basic story is the adventure the heroine is thrust into after running away from her group home. It gets the spectators rooting for Wendy and her Chihuahua dog almost immediately.
Secondary layers may are more subtle but essential. They include how Star Trek helps Wendy find a common language with strangers as well as how her life mirrors her script of needing to leave loved ones behind.
I will start by stating the obvious- depicting individuals on the autism spectrum is a slippery slope of sorts. Most scripts tend to show their characters as ‘normal’ individuals with ticks or quirks. As a result, many storylines have little to no character development per se.
Surprisingly the heroine in this movie does evolve.
At the beginning of the movie, the audience is told that Wendy has made strides at her group home.In fact, we see her navigate her world by memorizing rules, taking notes and repeating a relaxing mantra when she’s upset. She has mastered essential life skills like counting money and using public transportation and even holds a steady job.
Her decision to partake in the Paramount script contest is a gutsy one and shows incredible motivation on her part as she completes the 400 plus pages assignment.
But t her skills and resilience are truly put to the test when she decides to go on her own to L.A.
From the get-go, things go wrong for her!
The bus is on the wrong side of the busy street she can’t cross. The dog that tags along pees on the bus floor leading to her having to get off. Her prized possessions get stolen, and she even manages to land in a Bakersfield hospital with a concussion.
At this point, many would have been discouraged and would have given up! But not Wendy!
With the persistence of an energizer bunny, she does not give up and only moves in one direction–FORWARD.
Both my son and I liked the movie. It may not be an Oscar contender, but we found the film uplifting and show individuals with autism in a positive light. Thumbs up to the scene at Cinnabon when Wendy gets all the Star Trek trivia right and wins a bet.
It provides inspiration
Though Wendy is shown as having sensory challenges and lacking social and life skills the storyline doesn’t dwell on her deficits but highlights her attributes. In fact, on some level, she embodies every autism parent’s dream since she is relatively independent and self-sufficient.
There are many times during this odyssey she could have easily thrown a tantrum, but she doesn’t. In fact, when faced with adversity she continuously thinks outside the box. Faced with no fare money she stows away in the luggage area. And when the script pages fly all over the place she hand writes the story.
It raises the question of sibling responsibility
The story also hones on sibling responsibility and guilt. Wendy’s sister loves her and remembers their childhood but recognizes she needs to let go and live her own life. But she is torn when Wendy tells her she wants to come live with her and her family.
It addresses the way society views people with autism
In the beginning of the movie, Wendy is regarded as a disabled person vulnerable that needs constant protection. She is also perceived as threatening because of her meltdowns. However, by the end, she is seen in a different light.Her caregiver recognizes Wendy’s talent and motivation while her sister understands her baby sister is much more capable than she thought.
Noteworthy are Patton Oswald playing a cop knowing Klingon and Pete the adorable pup are wonderful and add heartwarming moments to the story.
Which brings us to what we liked less
The story does lapse into the implausible at times, which is mildly annoying.
Some glaring examples are the lack of supervision at the group home; the fact Wendy can board a retire home bus and the way she can just waltz her way into Paramount Studios.
Another head scratcher is the fact that Wendy doesn’t seem to live in 2018. Her prized possession is an iPod and co-worker makes her a CD mix. Furthermore, she doesn’t have access to the internet which explains her lack of info concerning the bus system as well as NO cell phone that would have helped trace her whereabouts.
Wow- that like two decades back!
We liked the Movie message of reaffirming that autism shouldn’t bring anyone down.Does it portray everyone on the spectrum? No! But it does scratch enough surface to be noticed.
As the title and Wendy’s mantra so poignantly remind us Please stand by –when and if glitches happen they are temporary, can be fixed and one should always continue to look forward to the future.
About the movie
Directed by: Ben Lewin
Written by: Michael Golamco
Starring: Dakota Fanning, Toni Collette, Alice Eve and Patton Oswalt
Running time: 93 mins.
Rating: PG-13 for A Few Frank Mentions About Bodily Functions and an Emotional Breakdown or Two
The movie, presented by Magnolia Pictures, will premiere in theaters on January 26 and will also be available on iTunes, on demand, and on Amazon Video that same day.