“Please Stand By”

We’re almost there – we’re almost back to the movies. After more than a year of binge watching movies and TV and sports and Youtube and anything else we could stream from home, the time is almost here when we can bask in the warm glow of those neon lights, pay way too much for way too much popcorn and get reacquainted with that bigger, louder, more intense cinematic experience. I can’t wait.

But we’re not quite there yet, at least not most of us. So we might as well plop back down on the couch and harken back to some pre-pandemic cinema for good feels.

Enter “Please Stand By” (now streaming on Hulu). This movie is apt, because it is about tough times and, more importantly, about getting past them, overcoming them and learning from them. It is about Wendy (Dakota Fanning), a young autistic woman living in a group home. She’s looked after by Scottie (Toni Collette).

Scottie cares about Wendy and wants the best for her. Still, Wendy doesn’t want to live there. She wants to live with her sister, Audrey (Alice Eve). Audrey also cares about Wendy, but it’s difficult to look after someone with a disability. While she feels guilty about her living in a group home, she’s just had a baby and doesn’t think she can care for both. 

Wendy isn’t always happy or comfortable, but one thing she loves and that makes her feel totally at home, is Star Trek. She’s a Treky. She especially likes the cool, logical Spock. And there’s a contest. Paramount Pictures is running a writing contest. The fan who writes the best script for an episode of Star Trek will win $100,000.

This is perfect for Wendy. She understands Star Trek – like, she really gets it. And she can write. And, hey, with $100k, she can leave, buy her mom’s house and move home. Originally, Wendy planned to just mail her script in, but when that doesn’t work out, she decides to ditch the fight and go for the flight.

Wendy plans to break out of her group home in Oakland, somehow get to Paramount Pictures in Los Angeles, submit her manuscript, win the prize money and then live long and prosper.

This may be a good idea in theory (well, kinda). But Wendy hits snags almost immediately. First, the group home’s little dog convinces Wendy to take it with her. So now she has a dog. Then, Wendy realizes that traveling places isn’t easy when you’ve never traveled places before. She needs money and tickets and etiquette and food and the kindness of strangers.

Unfortunately, as we all know, strangers are not always kind. Especially to someone like Wendy, who struggles to make eye contact, who acts in a way that others perceive as rude or offensive and who, as a result, gets frustrated.

It’s pretty clear that Wendy has a disability. So one option for strangers, you’d think, would be compassion. But, no, not for someone like Wendy. See, Wendy is difficult. She’s harsh. She’s sometimes annoying. She’s not like a cute kid with cancer or a decorated vet in a wheelchair—now those things elicit compassion.

It’s not her fault, but as we saw with her sister, if it’s too frustrating, better to just sweep it under the rug. Out of sight out of mind.

Most of the strangers that Wendy encounters are either dismissive of her in this way, or they take advantage of her. A few don’t. So a key question, which of course generalizes beyond Wendy, is: Is that enough?

Wendy has one, relatively simple goal: Deliver her manuscript. She shouldn’t have to go it alone. But she mostly does. She can’t go it completely alone – no one can. So, again, how much help is enough?

“Please Stand By” is a touching portrayal of a kind of life led by many but truly seen by few. Dakota Fanning brings to life the misunderstanding, alienation and deep frustration of being autistic in a neurotypical world.

And yet the movie maintains a relatively upbeat tone. It doesn’t feel devastating. It gently tugs rather than yanks on your heartstrings.

“Please Stand By” is a simple, even somewhat predictable movie. It does not try to do too much. Yet it also raises important questions about autism, how our society treats those who are “not normal,” what it means to help someone, and what success looks like for Wendy, or for anyone.

It’s a prime time to think about overcoming adversity. We’ve all had a fair share of it over the past year. Part of the overcoming is learning. And, as Wendy’s story illustrates, we’ve all got a lot to learn.

“Please Stand By” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language. 

 

 

Matt Duncan, a former Coastal View News editor, has taken physical but not emotional leave from Carpinteria to be a philosophy professor at Rhode Island College. In his free time from philosophizing, Duncan enjoys chasing his kids around, watching movies and updating his movie review blog, duncansreeldeal.blogspot.com.

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