Remarkable lives don’t always make remarkable movies. Too often the filmmakers try and wrest a three-act structure from the random events and ups and downs of their subject’s biography. And too often they end up trivializing their subjects, reducing complex narratives into a few emotional highpoints. Temple Grandin does not entirely avoid these pitfalls, but it comes close.
If there is such a thing as a superstar in the world of autism, then Temple Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University, is it. She is a world-renowned designer of livestock-handling facilities, author of several books, and a frequent lecturer, both on autism and cattle handling—all of this despite, and because, of her autism. It’s not a surprise that a film version of her life has been made; what’s surprising is that the film is as good as it is. The HBO biopic, directed by Mick Jackson, condenses about two decades of Grandin’s life into less than two hours, and like Grandin herself, it’s straightforward and unsentimental, as much about the work that its subject has accomplished (and continues to accomplish) as it is about the obstacles she’s overcome.
Claire Danes plays Grandin, and when she first appears in her goofy cowgirl shirt, sporting unplucked eyebrows and false teeth, it’s hard not to see the award statuettes flashing in the actress’s eyes. But Danes, who’s been very good on both the small screen and the big screen, is masterful as Grandin. Though she employs the panicky mannerisms and verbal tics of her subject, she never makes those qualities the central part of her performance. What emerges most from her performance is Grandin’s sometimes prickly stubbornness, her focused intelligence, and a determination to utilize her unique perspective to improve the world.
The movie zigzags through Grandin’s life, jumping between her time spent at school, both at an alternative high school, then at Franklin Pierce college, and finally her attempts to break into the old boy’s network of the cattle industry. Grandin equates her own autistic view of the world with that of a prey animal’s, and because of this unique perspective, she became gifted at designing holding pens and slaughterhouse conveyors that keep cattle calm and unsuspecting, even as they are being led to their deaths. The scenes that revolve around the meat industry are by far the best in the film, not only for what they reveal about the intricate workings of Grandin’s mind (the film often shows us what she sees—all angles and measurements), but for what they say about the ethics of a system that raises sentient creatures for meat. Grandin worked her way into the industry by designing systems that sped up the process by which cattle are slaughtered, but she is also driven by a desire to respect all life, and the film articulates her desires without ever becoming preachy or condescending.
The supporting performances are just as good as Danes’s: Julia Ormond is terrific as Grandin’s steely mother, who pushes her daughter to stay in school, while Catherine O’Hara is uncharacteristically low-key as the aunt that introduces Grandin to life on a farm. David Strathairn rounds out the principals as the sympathetic teacher who essentially unlocks the potential of Grandin’s brain. These relationships are sometimes over-sentimentalized by writers Christopher Monger and Merritt Johnson, such as the scene in which Grandin finally allows her mother to hug her, but the film is nowhere near as melodramatic as it could have been. Instead, it stays true to its subject: observant, clear-eyed, and remarkable.