It can be difficult to have the protagonist of a film be autistic, because if you mess up the portrayal the movie will, at best, look like it doesn’t understand its subject matter and, at worst, appear to be mocking its central disability. Please Stand By is a movie about a young autistic woman, Wendy (Dakota Fanning), who winds up going on a journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles to submit a manuscript for a Star Trek contest. Hilarity(?) ensues.
Wendy lives in a group home under the care of Scottie (Toni Collette). She was placed there by her sister (Alice Eve) after their mother died. Wendy has a daily routine she sticks to rigorously, has procured a job, and has been working on this script for months. She misses the deadline after a personal setback, and decides to run away from the group home to go on a road trip in order to deliver it in person. She tells nobody. The movie cuts back and forth between Wendy’s struggles on the road and the attempts by Scottie and her sister to track her down.
It’s a pretty simple and formulaic road trip movie apart from (1) the initial setup and (2) the fact that Wendy is autistic. As a result, she struggles with complete understanding of what’s going on and her interactions with the people around her, which leads to more trouble than it otherwise should be. It won’t be a simple bus trip to LA, as she’d hoped. Meanwhile, the B-story isn’t compelling whatsoever; we don’t want them to find her before she gets to LA, and we don’t believe she’s in any genuine danger, so they’re more of a nuisance than anything else—much like how they function from Wendy’s perspective.
Please Stand By does does a good job of making us root for Wendy. We understand how much this contest means to her, and how much Star Trek matters in her life. It’s one of the ways by which she processes the world; this contest is a way for her to express herself in a way that she otherwise can’t, through Star Trek. Wendy is a compelling character.
We sometimes forget how good Dakota Fanning is when she’s on. She’s on here. Disabilities can be tough to portray if you aren’t afflicted with them, but she’s really good at portraying her character’s autism—both from a physical standpoint and a vocal one. It’s not over-the-top or mocking, either, which is always a risk. Collette and Eve, and the rest of the supporting cast, are fine, but Fanning is the star and the reason that the film works as well as it does.
Please Stand By does feel pretty generic—its autistic character can’t make up for a relatively cookie-cutter plot—but it’s watchable and even somewhat compelling. Its protagonist is one to root for, and her journey isn’t an unpleasant one. While this may not be a great movie, it’s a decent one and it’s not one you’ll likely dislike. It won’t leave much of an impact and it doesn’t transcend its borders, but it makes for a perfectly serviceable watch.
Conclusion: Please Stand By is a generic road movie elevated slightly by its lead performance and its protagonist’s disability.
Recommendation: Please Stand By isn’t anything close to a must-watch, but if you’re interested in it, you’re not doing yourself a disservice by watching it.