Autism is a difficult topic to address in modern pop culture. For the most part, characters with autism are either presented as non-verbal and monstrous or of incredible intelligence but played for comedy with an extreme lack of basic life skills. While the spectrum is vast and autism is still something professionals and families are trying to document and understand, Please Stand By has given us a female character with autism that we can cheer for and relate to without false pity or making those living with it into monsters.
Please Stand By is the story of Wendy (Dakota Fanning), a young woman diagnosed with autism who lives in a group home and has a deep love of all things Star Trek. When tested, she has proven to be a walking encyclopedia of Star Trek knowledge. She is intelligent and has developed a well-structured life through the help of her caretaker, Scottie (Toni Collette). When Paramount Studios creates a contest for a Star Trek fan script, Wendy begins her detailed and well-written script with gusto. She has everything ready and prepared for mailing so it will arrive just before the contest closes. Her sister, Audrey (Alice Eve) has recently had a new baby and with changes in the family, she decides to visit Wendy and let her know all that has happened. Unfortunately, Wendy thinks the meeting means she is coming back to live with her sister’s family. In the shuffle and disappointment of being told Wendy must remain at the group home, Wendy forgets to mail her script. With a Sunday and a Monday holiday following right behind, she is devastated to realize her script will never make it to Los Angeles on time. Panicked, she comes up with a plan to take a bus to Paramount studios and hand deliver the script herself. This involves breaking out of her group home, and making a trip from San Francisco to Southern California with limited knowledge of money and travel. What follows is a beautiful little film that is at times hilarious, but always leaves you wanting desperately for Wendy’s dreams to come true.
The title, Please Stand By, refers to the words Wendy’s care taker uses to calm her during anxiety episodes and also the warning screen from early days of television if programming in progress was interrupted. In no way does the film cover up the difficulties of life as a person with Autism, but it does give us a character that we can root for and truly feel for. Patton Oswalt steals the show as a police officer in Los Angeles who just so happens to speak the Star Trek language of Klingon fluently. He is able to show a kinship to Wendy that ends up helping her along. It’s both a hilarious scene and ones nerds with rejoice in. Some of the behaviors and patterns in this film will feel very familiar to people with autism and their families. There are also plenty of references for folks who love Star Trek.
Please Stand By is a wonderful film that I found utterly charming and worthy of rewatching. It is now available on Bluray and DVD.