Wendy (Dakota Fanning) is an autistic young woman and dedicated Star Trek fan living in a group home supervised by Scottie (Toni Colette), who helps the challenged lady cope with the “normal” world. When Paramount Studios announce a Trek screenplay contest to all comers, Wendy, the consummate Trekie, pulls out all the stops to win in “Please Stand By.”
As I thought about “Please Stand By,” it occurred to me that the film’s star appeared in another film about a mentally challenged adult, “I Am Sam (2001),” with Sean Penn. What does that have to do with the new film by Ben Lewin? Nothing, really, but it is an interesting factoid.
Wendy, with Scottie’s help, goes through her daily rituals – walking her dog, Pete; preparing for her work day; making the journey to her job at Cinnabon (never, under any circumstances, cross Market Street). She handles it pretty well and hopes that she can prove herself to her older sister, Audrey (Alice Eve) that she is stable enough to come home. Audrey, though, has a new baby and is worried what Wendy might do.
This dilemma and the Star Trek script contest are the catalyst for Wendy to prove that she can be trusted. She finishes her S.T. script (nearly 500 pages of it) and begins her quest to deliver her story to Paramount in LA. Wendy lives in San Francisco and cannot cross Market, so there is an immediate conflict for her. The story is about how she overcomes this and every obstacle to fulfill her mission.
Dakota Fanning does a superior job portraying functional autism and her story, or “trek,” parallels the story she tells in her script – centering on half-human/half-alien Spock and his captain, Kirk. Wendy is Spock, at least in her mind, and she uses his logic and intelligence to inspire her to do what she sets out to do.
Of course, Wendy’s disappearance triggers Scottie into action as she sets out, with her son, Sam (River Alexander), in tow, but not before she calls Audrey, to find her ward. This call pushes Audrey to begin her own search for her missing sister. These three roads – Wendy’s, Scottie’s and Audrey’s, all heading to LA – will, of course, converge in what one hopes will be the expected happy ending.
Director Ben Lewin does not take the easy, glib path that the story could have gone down. Instead, Wendy’s personal journey garners the viewer’s sympathy, and often empathy, for the young woman and her quest. Of course, the script by Michael Galamco has her meeting good people, bad people, selfish people and those who are generous and kind but they are all a part of Wendy’s metamorphosis.
Road movies are pretty common but “Please Stand By” makes the genre its own as we root for Wendy ever step of her way. What could be overly sentimental is fresh and grounded in a believable character that has a dream. I give it a B.
Autistic Wendy (Dakota Fanning) just wants to leave the group home her sister Audrey (Alice Eve, "Star Trek: Into Darkness"), overwhelmed by their mother's death and her own new baby Ruby, placed her in. Wendy's been making great strides with therapist Scottie (Toni Collette), but resents that their exercises take away time from writing the 'Star Trek' script she hopes will win her $100K. Audrey's first visit goes poorly, causing Wendy to miss the deadline for mailing her entry to Paramount. She decides to travel from San Francisco to L.A. to deliver it in person without the help of Scottie's calming phrase "Please Stand By."
It's not difficult to see why this movie is bypassing a theatrical release, but that doesn't mean it's not worthwhile. This sweet little road movie is anchored by Fanning's central performance, one of compassion isolated by her affliction. Adapted from his one act play by Michael Golamco and directed by "The Sessions'" Ben Lewis, the film is slight but winning, just like Wendy's little dog Pete.
Scottie's been having trouble raising her own teenaged son, Sam (River Alexander, "The Way Way Back"), but once she enters the group home she's in command. Wendy, prone to violent shutdowns when overwhelmed by noise or emotion, is generally taking care of herself, holding down a job at Cinnabon, obeying the rule to never cross Market St. on her own under any circumstance. Her talent is evident in her writing, a tale in which Spock travels through time to try and save Kirk. Wendy's convinced she can win and that the money will allow her to move back in with her sister.
But when Audrey arrives, Wendy's first upset that she hasn't brought her new niece Rose, then by Audrey's non-committance. At dawn the next day, she sets off with her script, her iPod (Cinnabon coworker Nemo's (Tony Revolori, "The Grand Budapest Hotel") made her a mix CD) some cash and Pete, who's followed her and refuses to go home. She makes the momentous Market St. crossing and navigates her way onto an L.A. bound bus, but Pete's need to pee gets them thrown out on the side of the highway. Back at the home, Scottie is beside herself. After working the phones for 24 hours, she traces her charge to that highway stop and Audrey sets off to find her. Scottie and Sam follow when her detective work turns up a stronger lead, Sam's understanding of Wendy by reading her script an inroad to rebuilding his relationship with his mom.
Wendy is both taken advantage of, losing all her money, and helped by strangers, senior retiree Rose's (Marla Gibbs, TV's 'The Jeffersons') aid a double edged sword. The resilience Wendy exhibits in achieving her goal is both remarkable and believable due to Fanning's committed performance. Her travels bring her into contact with many individuals, "Happy Death Day's" Jessica Rothe a sympathetic swindler, "Terri's" Jacob Wysocki an amusing male nurse, Robin Weigert (HBO's 'Deadwood') and Patton Oswalt a couple of L.A. cops, the latter of whom can speak fluent Klingon, a handy skill.
Like the one act play which inspired it, "Please Stand By" is small in scale and holds few surprises, but it is a pleasurable pastime, its satisfying wrap sidestepping Hallmark sentimentality.
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