Film Review: Please Stand By

'Please Stand By' is not about a young woman grappling with autism as much as it is about a defining moment in a young woman’s life—and Dakota Fanning is outstanding in the starring role.
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Please Stand By is a sweet, low-key drama anchored by Dakota Fanning’s wonderful performance as Wendy, a young woman with autism. Wendy lives in a group home in San Francisco, where she leads a highly structured existence that does not allow her much time to write. When the film opens, Wendy, who is a Trekker, is already at work on her movie script. Paramount Pictures is offering a $100,000 reward for the best entry in a screenwriting contest for a new Star Trek movie.

The story may sound improbable, but it is not. Please Stand By never reveals whether or not Wendy is a proficient writer. The movie is actually about the 20-year-old’s quest for identity. Audrey (Alice Eve), Wendy’s married sister, perceives her as somehow lacking, or not entirely whole, and is unaware that Wendy actually knows her limitations and practices overcoming them. Wendy also possesses an unusual resourcefulness and a capacity for creative thought that only Scottie (Toni Collette), her caretaker, appreciates. In a scene at the group home early in the film, it becomes apparent that after their mother’s death, Audrey felt overwhelmed and, unable to cope with her domestic responsibilities and Wendy’s unstable personality, sent her sister away.

Wendy has made great progress with Scottie and feels ready to go home, but Audrey has decided to sell their mom’s house. She visits Wendy to tell her about the decision, and that is when the two have a falling out. Wendy complains that she is the aunt to Audrey’s child, yet she has never met her. It is clear that Audrey is worried that Wendy will harm the toddler, not an entirely unrealistic fear. As the movie illustrates, Wendy suffers from anxiety, and she does have breakdowns in which she cries or shouts, and is unable to breathe. The title of the film refers to the calming mantra Scottie has taught Wendy to repeat when she is overwhelmed or feels out of control.

As Wendy’s deadline for the screenwriting contest approaches, she frets over finishing the script in time. She decides that since she has held a job at Cinnabon, and she has other matters under control, she can travel to Los Angeles on her own and deliver her contest entry in person. Pete, the little, bug-eyed dog who is her companion, insists on accompanying her. Embarking on her first independent adventure requires getting to the bus depot, and that means crossing Market Street. She has been told never to cross the busy boulevard, but when the walk sign flashes, Wendy courageously steps off the curb and into the unknown. The rest of the movie depicts Wendy’s heroic journey.

Please Stand By strives for the larger, archetypal dimensions of the quest for identity, but that intent is only apparent in Fanning’s performance. The screenplay is rudimentary; the plot is linear and character development, with the exception of Wendy, is elementary. Promising minor characters in what might have been amusing subplots appear and then are dropped, such as an elderly woman on the bus to Los Angeles who befriends Wendy, and Scottie’s adolescent son, also a Trekker, who appears to resent his mother’s work. While Collette turns in a solid performance, Eve’s is spiritless, even when she cries.

Competent direction by Ben Lewin (The Sessions), and a skillful edit by Lisa Bromwell improve matters somewhat. Lewin’s small but significant choices, such as cutting away to the scenes in Wendy’s imagination as she writes her screenplay, and using the least amount of narration as possible so as not to undercut Fanning’s performance, elevate a film that sometimes teeters on the edge of a TV movie-of-the-week. The scenes from Wendy’s imagination are also used as a clever leitmotif in her moments of doubt and loneliness on the road. In a key sequence at Paramount, Lewin wisely steps out of Fanning’s way—there are no excessive camera movements, no music and very little cutting.

Please Stand By makes a hero of a young woman who is, regardless of her newfound sense of self, still severely challenged. There is an undeniable integrity in that, in maintaining Wendy’s “abnormal” perspective as simply unusual or somewhat outside the norm, a fact that will not escape the notice of young adults who are the movie’s target audience. When Wendy takes that dangerous step into the void of Market Street, she symbolically goes “where no man has gone before”; she relinquishes the control that has, up until now, characterized her life. It is a dangerous journey, yet like the crew of the Enterprise, Wendy seeks new “worlds,” ones in which she can live more consciously and as her resilient self.

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