These past few years have seen a greater appreciation of stories told from the autism perspective. New shows like Young Sheldon, The Good Doctor and Atypical, for instance, and recent movies like Life, Animated, Dina and The Accountant —while all varying in quality— took considerable efforts to tell stories from the rich perspectives of people on the spectrum. As someone on the spectrum myself, I have mixed feelings about this recent influx. On the one hand, I heartily appreciate the attention given to these stories. There are many beautiful, meaningful stories to be told from this complex point of view, and telling more narratives with these type of characters at the forefront represents great strides towards letting people like me be understood and accepted in the outside world.
For that, I’m grateful. But when that impression is inaccurate, misconstrued, or just plain deceitful, as it can regularly be, there’s the greater risk of misinforming the public and giving the wrong idea of what it’s like to interact with people with autism. It’s a tough balance, and most of the non-documentary titles I’ve listed above haven’t properly told the stories they wish to tell. It’s troublesome, and while it’s nice to see more tales told about people like me, I’d much rather the stories be told rightly and authentically.
Please Stand By, the newest film from director Ben Lewin (The Sessions), certainly isn’t the worst depiction of autism I’ve ever seen. Far from it, in fact. It’s an understanding, sympathetic movie, and it’s told with tender kindness, patient care, and warmth. Its intentions seem sincere, and there’s a nice, sweet delicateness to its fine execution. I have no doubt that it means well. Despite its fantastically realized lead performance from Dakota Fanning, however, Please Stand By can’t help but feel shallow.
It’s not an empty film, nor is it a boring or meaningless one. It’s just sorta… plain. Nice attention to character building at the beginning is muted by the generic road trip story and the rote character arcs by its supporting cast, which includes many talented actors like Toni Collette and Alice Eve, along with noteworthy cameos by Jessica Rothe (Happy Death Day), Patton Oswalt, Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel) and more. In short, Please Stand By is a pleasant film, but it’s not a substantial one. In certain ways, that makes its representation of Asperger’s Syndrome both better and a bit worse.
Based on the play by screenwriter Michael Golamco, Please Stand By is a light, mostly charming character study of Wendy (Fanning), a young autistic woman who resides in a group house run by psychologist Scottie (Collette). Wendy lives her life in a very structured fashion. She works at Cinnabon, watches Star Trek in her free time and then continues chipping away at her 429-page fan fiction screenplay, The Many and the Few. She wears different colored clothing based on the day (Saturday = red). She doesn’t interact with others and is generally friendless, save for the occasional interaction with Nemo (Revolori), a music-loving co-worker who harbors a crush on her she doesn’t catch. It’s a simple, mostly stress-free life, with Wendy’s attention directed towards a Star Trek screenplay contest held by Paramount Pictures with a chance to win $100,000.
Wendy hopes to submit The Many and the Few into that contest, but an incident involving Audrey (Eve), her concerned older sister, results in her missing the mailing deadline. Deeply distressed, Wendy makes a rash decision in the middle of the night: she’ll travel to Los Angeles to hand-deliver the script in time. But throughout her travels in the strange outside world, Wendy is met with several difficulties, delaying her endeavors, all while Audrey and Scottie race to bring her home safely.
It’s the story of an extraordinary person told in ordinary fashion, although Fanning does wonders to bring a rich, genuine inner life into her character. Please Stand By, rather thankfully, doesn’t rely on stereotypes like other autism-based movies do, and it’s to her talented credit that a number of this indie movie’s cloying, overly saccharine, if mostly good-natured, efforts go down smoother than they otherwise would. It’s also a relief to see the female autistic perspective portrayed here — something that is unjustly ignored in general media. I will admit outright, that general uniqueness does make Please Stand By more worthy of my compassion. But there’s still not enough that Please Stand By brings to the table to earn my complete, wholehearted admiration. If anything, it gets a few extra brownie points not given to Atypical or The Accountant.
And yet, as sugary and pedestrian as it can weirdly (and quite unfortunately) be, there is a winning sweetness to Please Stand By that’s easy to admire and hard to resist. The screenplay is patient and caring, filled with thought and gentle care, and Fanning’s performance conveys a subtle realism that makes the whole movie more endearing. The noted lack of eye contact she gives people, along with the breathless speech and overactive thought patterns, makes Wendy far more believable than previous attempts to convey the autistic perspective in film and television. Lewin’s filmmaking style is too sunny and shiny to give Please Stand By any firm narrative weight, but he is wise enough to know when to let Fanning command the screen, without any unnecessary stylistic flairs or flashes. It’s, ultimately, a little uneven, and if you decide to check it out, you might not be disappointed. It’s not memorable, certainly, but it’s heartfelt and filled with lovely touches. For some audiences, that’ll understandably make it all worthwhile.
It’s a pleasing movie, and for all its faults, it knows how to keep itself nice and lovely. But for this Aspergian, it was merely close, but no cigar. Good effort, though. Sincerely.