Saturday, February 17, 2018

Movie Review of "Please Stand By"

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to watch the film"Please Stand By" which is the first ever fictional representation of an autistic female protagonist.   When I first heard about the film last December, I was excited and looking forward to its release because with the exception of the Temple Grandin movie,  there hasn't been any films or t.v. shows made about females on the spectrum.  Most film and t.v. shows like Atypical or The Good Doctor tend to feature white autistic males as protagionists.   To give you an overview on the plot, the film is about a 21-year old woman named Wendy (played by Dakota Fanning) who resides in a group home with her dog Pete and is a huge Star Trek fan. She has a job at Cinnabon. The bulk of the film focuses on her journey from San Francisco to L.A. to turn in her Star Trek script to Paramount Studios.  Throughout her pilgrimage, she encounters obstacles that she must overcome.  It is film about passion, confidence and self determination.

Overall, I really enjoyed the film and was impressed with how they developed Wendy's character.  I liked that the writers and directors portrayed Wendy as a full fledged character with interests, passions and feelings instead of a checklist of symptoms from the DSM.  Too often, I feel that the autistic characters in most movies and television shows are portrayed in a way in which their deficits are highlighted which evokes a sense of pity and disdain from the viewer.  In the characterization of Wendy, there was a nice delicate balance between showing the real challenges that autistic people have along with their capabilities. 

As an autistic female who is also in her 20's as well, I relate so much to Wendy.  We both have to struggle to work hard to navigate a world not built for us, we're both passionate about our special interests (for me it's characters such as Disney or Hello kitty while for Wendy it's Star Trek) and that we both have stubborn and determined personalities.   We're both at similar levels in terms of how autism impacts us meaning that we have normal speaking abilities and self care skills and can easily pass as "normal."  Yet, we still struggle with certain things in our daily lives and we still need supports to manage effectively.  In that sense, I liked how the movie shows Wendy as capable and independent (she is able to navigate the bus system and hold a job at Cinnabon but can't live on her own) but does not overlook or "gloss over" her support needs.  This is unusual because autistic people who are able to "pass" in society are often portrayed as having no support needs at all.  Another aspect that I can relate to Wendy is that we are both good writers.  Wendy spends most of her leisure time writing Star Trek scripts.  I also spend part of my leisure time writing blog posts and articles.  Writing is a way for us to really express our inner thoughts and beliefs and reveal how we process the world.
Although I enjoyed the film, there are a few caveats or things that particularly made me feel uncomfortable as a viewer as well as an autistic person.  The first thing was Wendy's living situation.  Wendy lives in a  group home with four or five other residents.  I felt the portrayal of the group home was not realistic.  The home she lived in was very nice and spacious (big lounging areas, nice big rooms for each resident) and had the euphemistic name "Bay Area Assisted Living Facility."  While there maybe a few homes like that, the reality is that most group homes are not as luxurous and "posh" as the one in the film.  In fact, I hear stories of people who are unhappy with their group homes and the limited control they have as well as stories of abuse and neglect.   Even Wendy herself is resentful of the limited choices she has in her home like the fact that she has to "have pizza on Thursdays even when she doesn't want to" or that she "can't watch t.v. when she wants to."    It would be nice if Wendy  had a supported living situation in which she lived in her own apartment but have support staff to come assist her with daily living activities.  She would have a little more freedom and feel more integrated into her community.  Not all autistic people live or want to live in  congregate living facilities.  To glorify such living arrangements overlooks the fact that autistic people who need help to live in the community can still live independently.

Another aspect  of the film that  made me uncomfortable was how people mistreat and took advantage of Wendy.   Don't get me wrong, this is the reality for a lot of autistic individuals in terms of people can be mean, hostile and apathetic.  But it was the fact that Wendy came across one mean person after another along her journey from the bus driver who talks down at her for not knowing that she had to purchase a ticket before boarding the bus to the receptionist at Paramount studios who refused to let her turn in her Star Trek script because it was not mailed in despite being before the submission deadline.  We all come across people who don't understand or who are downright hostile to our differences, but realistically we don't come across that many mean people every hour in a short period of time. 
The part that was the most uncomfortable for me to watch  is that everyday strangers were not willing to take time out of their day to assist her and expect Wendy to "figure it out" on her own.  The only nice person was the elderly lady who chastized the cashier of a liquor store for ripping her off over a bag of candy and offered her a place to stay when she found out Wendy was traveling by herself.   The fact that only one person was nice to her reflects a very sad truth about how self absorbed and apathetic people are in 21st century American society.

Perhaps the biggest person in Wendy's life who mistreats and undermines her was her sister, Audrey.  I felt it was awful that her sister viewed her as  dangerous and that she was afraid to let Wendy near her baby daughter.  In the film, Wendy demonstrates no such destructive behaviors  besides having a meltdown and in which she self injures herself for the very reason of  Audrey refusing to let her live with her family.  There was no justification for Audrey to view Wendy as "dangerous" just because she has meltdowns.  On the positive side, at least her sister changes her attitude about Wendy in the end and eventually lets her see her niece.

Overall, I really enjoyed the film.  Not only because it was a film about an autistic female, but also because it was one of the few that didn't rely on stereotypes about autism like many films about it.  I like how Wendy proves the misconceptions that her sister as well as her therapist/house manager Scottie wrong by showing how resourceful she was in navigating her journey from San Francisco to L.A.  in order to submit her Star Trek script before the deadline.  In an interview with the site Geek club books, director Michael Golamco took great care in making Wendy as "fully human" as possible.    When watching this film, this was evident throughout the plot and was a theme throughout the whole movie.  He was able to keep the audience entertained while portraying an authentic and genuine narrative about autism.   If you haven't seen the movie yet, I recommend you watch it.  You can view it on-demand on Amazon or Itunes.

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