For Wendy (Dakota Fanning), a young woman with autism living in a San Francisco group home, life is a series of rules, routines, and reminders. Wear a specific sweater each day of the week. Always check to see if you’re having your period. Remember to vary your vocal intonation so you don’t sound like a robot to others. And whatever you do, do not cross Market Street.
Wendy’s home is overseen by a compassionate caregiver, Scottie (Toni Collette), who understands that the creative young girl needs time to herself. And it’s during that time that Wendy works on her 500-page submission to a Star Trek scriptwriting contest. For the most part, though, Wendy finds her life fairly stultifying, and when she realizes that it’s too late to send in her script by mail, she takes the opportunity to set out for Los Angeles on her own to drop it off in person. Forced well outside of her routinized comfort zone, Wendy subsequently encounters scoundrels who take advantage of her naïveté, as well as good-hearted folks who lend a helping hand.
Ben Lewin’s Please Stand By presents Wendy’s adventure as a journey of self-realization during which she proves to herself and others that she’s capable of navigating the vagaries of the modern world. The film’s screenplay, by Michael Golamco, is attentive to the way that certain habits like note-taking can help people on the spectrum to cope with difficult situations. At the very least, Wendy’s ability to use Star Trek to decode the world around her mirrors real-life cases of individuals with autism gaining a deeper understanding of their condition through the lens of pop culture, such as the Disney-obsessed subject of Roger Ross Williams’s documentary Life, Animated.
Unfortunately, the film never makes Wendy or the world she inhabits feel entirely credible. This is partly due to Fanning’s half-realized performance, as the actress mimics the behavior commonly associated with autism spectrum disorder but never convincingly brings to life a fully inhabited person. With her adorable Chihuahua sidekick and stylishly funky wardrobe, Wendy is less a truly thought-through character than a compendium of quirks.
Ultimately, the filmmakers seem ambivalent about whether they want to use Wendy for a genuine exploration of the lives of people with autism or if they’re only interested in her as an eccentric and heartwarming hero. This ambivalent attitude is exemplified by the varying adults with whom she interacts. On the one hand, there’s Scottie, whose profound yet unassuming devotion to Wendy’s well-being reflects the difficulties, compromises, and hard work that goes into providing therapy and resources for people with disabilities. On the other, there are the cartoonish individuals who Wendy encounters throughout her journey, such as a nerdy police officer (Patton Oswalt) who earns her trust by speaking to her in Klingon. If Scottie represents the filmmakers’ curiosity about autism, the cop demonstrates their willingness to sacrifice verisimilitude whenever they feel like it. Sadly, that latter tendency is one Please Stand By too often gives into.