Please Stand By is a Quietly Subversive Film

Maxfield Sparrow

[image: Twitter exchange: “I want to see Please Stand By but as one on the spectrum I don’t want to be hung up on the attention to detail and accuracy of the portrayal at the expense of actually enjoying the movie.” -@GlennHampson

“Me too. Which is why I can’t wait until Hollywood starts getting that stuff right so I *can* just relax 

and enjoy a film about people like me.” – @UnstrangeMind]

That Twitter exchange sums up how I feel when I watch fictional movies that feature Autistic characters, like the recent release Please Stand By. I want to just sit back and let the experience carry me away to fantasy land like I do with nearly every other movie I watch … but I can’t.

WWII historians cannot passively watch Enemy at the Gates or U-571, and enjoy them as thrilling drama without picking apart all the inaccuracies. Alan Moore fans cringe while watching film versions of his graphic novels that changed his work so much Moore demanded to have his name removed from the credits.

Likewise, it is impossible for me to just relax and watch Autistic fiction created by non-autistic writers, directors and actors because I cannot turn off the internal critic that sees every misrepresentation and misunderstanding of my people, writ large upon the screen. As a result, I watch autism stories in movies and on TV in three layers simultaneously: political, representational, and artistic.

In the political channel of my mind, I am examining whether the writer, director, actors, and consultants were actually Autistic or not. I am looking at how the storytelling choices of the creative team might increase, or decrease, the stigma we Autistic people live with.

The representational channel of my mind is exploring how well Autistic people were depicted, regardless of who was creating the story I’m watching. Of course it will be easier for actually Autistic people to create a story that represents us well, but I do believe non-autistic people can do a good job if they pay attention to Autistic voices and work carefully.

The artistic channel of my mind is that part of me that would have just been sitting back and enjoying the ride if I were watching almost any other movie. When I can easily suspend my disbelief, and just enjoy a movie as a work of art and entertainment without interference from the political and representational channels of my mind, this channel carries my entire impression of a film.

So this review of Please Stand By reflects the way my mind splits into those three channels when I watch autism fiction. I’d like to start with the artistic channel because it’s the simplest to talk about: Please Stand By was cute and fun. It was a little less about Star Trek than the trailer suggests, but there was still a lot of Star Trek content, including that iconic moment when Patton Oswalt’s character has a short conversation in the Klingon language with Dakota Fanning’s character. I warn you, though, that the fanfic moments in the film comprise less than a quarter of the overall movie. If your only reason for watching it is because you are a Star Trek fan, you will find it a quirky curiosity only worth adding to your collection for the sake of completion.

Please Stand By had funny moments, sweet moments, I-really-hate-that-character moments, and a couple of touching moments. Stripped of political and representational significance, I see it as a fun, lighthearted “date movie.” But viewed through my two other lenses, Please Stand By is much more than twee, feel-good entertainment.

The movie is about Wendy, a 21-year-old Autistic woman who lives in an unbelievably spacious and well-appointed group home with the euphemistic name of the Bay Area Assisted Living Center. Wendy loves knitting, her little dog Petey, and Star Trek. The movie opens near the end of Wendy’s intense focus on writing a Star Trek script for a Paramount contest, so Wendy’s passionate interest in Star Trek is on high during the eventful few days of her life depicted on screen.

I watched Please Stand By three times through, as well as re-watching a few select scenes. While immersed in the movie, I found my opinion of it shifting with each viewing. My thoughts and opinions about the movie continued to percolate and evolve even after I finished watching, as I played through the movie’s messages in my mind. As a result of such careful scrutiny and digestion, I have come away with the opinion that Please Stand By is a positively subversive film that will help reduce the stigma Autistic people live with, through its subtle storytelling.

The film clearly demonstrates the dehumanizing injustices Wendy faces every day without being “in your face” about the fact that they are injustices, or dehumanizing. Unlike many films and TV shows that try to spoon-feed Important Messages and Information to the viewer, Please Stand By artfully arranges realistic situations, then leaves the viewer to connect the dots herself. While Wendy lives in a comfortable home with Scottie, a support worker who speaks to her in a gentle voice and helps soothe Wendy through a meltdown with her calming phrase, “Please stand by; Please stand by,” Wendy is simultaneously subjected to the world’s consensus opinion of her incompetence, and repeated discussions of what a burden she is.

Scottie takes good care of Wendy’s physical needs and helps Wendy structure and organize her life, but also insists on frustrating and painful training in things like sustaining eye contact or something called “names and places” that neither Wendy nor Scottie enjoy but “has to be done” because it’s one of the mandated things that Autistic clients must study.

And while it’s clear that Scottie cares about Wendy, she is also seriously failing as support staff because she knows next to nothing about Star Trek, Wendy’s greatest passion in life. Scottie makes sure Wendy gets undisturbed writing time, and has taken care to add a daily Star Trek episode to Wendy’s schedule—but Scottie doesn’t even know what a Tribble is, and can’t keep Star Trek and Star Wars separate in her mind. Scottie is working to bring Wendy into alignment with Scottie’s understanding of the world, but has not done nearly enough to enter the world that is most important to Wendy.

And Wendy trusts Scottie, but resents the life that has been shaped for her. Wendy wants to meet her infant niece, Ruby. She wants to return to the house she grew up in. She wants to set her own schedule, and not have to battle her home’s four other residents for access to shared resources. Wendy wants to live her own life with her own choices in her own space. It doesn’t seem too much to ask. But while Wendy is portrayed as having “made a lot of progress,” she is not even permitted to cross Market Street by herself, let alone be trusted to be safe around infants like her niece, or responsible enough for supported independent living and making her own decisions about the course of her life.

Early in the film we witness Wendy having a meltdown. It was hard for me to watch. It was fairly realistic, and one thing it showed was that Wendy is not violent. Yes, her sister Audrey got hit in the face—but it was because Wendy was hitting herself in the head and Scottie slipped while trying to restrain Wendy, causing her hand to fly into the sister’s face. Audrey had been closing in to help with the meltdown, despite being the source of Wendy’s distress as well as seeming to know even less about how to help Wendy than Scottie did. (Scottie did help Wendy to calm down, but I was disturbed to see her continuing to restrain Wendy long after she had stopped hitting herself.)

The meltdown served another purpose, further contributing to Please Stand By being a subversive film. Not only did it show that Wendy would only harm another person through someone else’s accident, not her own choice—but it showed Wendy melting down over matters that just about anyone would recognize as huge, valid, serious issues. So many movies depict us Autistics melting down over things that are serious to us, but intentionally chosen as issues that seem trivial and pointless to many non-autistic people. But Wendy was upset about huge, valid, serious issues for anybody experiencing them: having her home taken from her, at having no choice about how she gets to live her life, and about not being allowed to meet a new family member she clearly adores. While someone not used to thinking about autism issues might overlook this incident on a conscious level, Wendy’s meltdown was understandable.

On the one hand, it stings that our trauma is only viewed as legitimate when it lines up with neurotypical ideas of trauma, but from a political perspective it is so important and validating that Please Stand By chose a meltdown scenario that pretty much any viewer is going to take seriously. Helping the viewer to take Wendy seriously is subversive.

Another subversive element of Wendy’s character is how sweet, gentle, harmless, whimsical, and delicate she seems. She was clearly written and cast for the audience to love. Even more important than her adorably quirky appearance is her stainless steel personal strength. There are so few representations of Autistic women to start with. I am grateful that the playwright who began this story started with his one-act play chose to portray an Autistic woman with such  power and persistence. While there are aspects of Fanning’s performance as Wendy that feel a bit strained, overall her representation of feminine autism is positive and valuable.

Wendy’s character was intended to be a woman from the very first moment she emerged as a story seed in writer Michael Golamco’s mind. In a recent interview, the author notes that the kernel of inspiration for the story came from a 2007 New York Times Magazine article about Autistic women. Golamco pulled together what he learned from that article and his own love of Star Trek and life as a writer. While probably not intentional, the heavy emphasis on Star Trek in the storyline is another subversive element, just like Wendy’s charismatic presence and the large number of established celebrities in the cast. Many people who would not necessarily have chosen to watch a movie about autism will be drawn to Please Stand By because of the Star Trek content. These people will enter the theater to hear Klingon dialogue and leave the theater with a fresh view of the power of following a passionate dream and new respect for the, perhaps unexpected, competence an Autistic person can display, even while being dismissed by others.

One of the most common complaints about representation is how often Autistic people are portrayed by non-autistic actors. In fact, other than documentary films, I can only think of one Autistic character portrayed by an Autistic actor: Christopher Boone, in the play based on the novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, who has been portrayed by Mickey Rowe. I can only think of three other famous Autistic actors—Dan AykroydDarryl Hannah, and Anthony Hopkins—and none has yet portrayed an identified Autistic character. (Although, in fairness, Wendy is not officially identified as Autistic, either. It is quite clear that she is Autistic and Golamco says that he wrote her as Autistic, but the word “autism” appears nowhere in Please Stand By, for whatever reason.)

While Please Stand By did not cast an Autistic person in the role of Wendy, it is politically important that there are four Autistic actors in the film. These actors appear in the credits, and if Please Stand By is covered by SAG-AFTRA (I’m not sure whether it is or not) that makes those actors eligible for their Screen Actors Guild cards, which opens many doors in the world of acting. Additionally, their professional work helps others in Hollywood to recognize that hiring actually Autistic actors is a possibility, and the work of those actors—Lexi Aaron, Dominique “Big D” Brown, Brittanie Sanders, and Cindy Miyashiro—could help to open the door for more Autistic actors in the future.

A California organization called The Miracle Project, also the group behind the documentary Autism:The Musical, helped these four Autistic actors. The Miracle Project supports Autistic actors with classes, performances, and more. While the four Autistic actors in Please Stand By only had small roles, they are helping to move Hollywood into the 21st century with respect to the importance and value of Autistic actors in the entertainment industry. The Ruderman Family Foundation reports that while 20% of the population is Disabled, only 2% of television characters have a disability. Moreover, 95% of those characters are portrayed by non-disabled actors. The situation in Hollywood is similar.

We’ve got a long way to go with the politics and representation of Autistic people in movies and television, but watching Please Stand By I couldn’t help notice how far we’ve come since the days of Rain Man. The film is operating on multiple levels and the fact that it manages to come across as “fluffy and fun,” while carrying some very serious messages to viewers, benefits Disability representation in proving that a movie can address serious issues while maintaining general appeal.

One example of the multiple levels the movie is operating on is that Scottie seems kind, caring, and supportive but the viewer gradually realizes she is part of an entire system holding Wendy back from becoming everything she could be. When Wendy breaks the rules and crosses Market Street for the first time, we see a noticeable change in her character. She has taken the first step outside the safe little prison that has been built around her and begins to take charge of her own life. Crossing the street is a simple act for many people, but when Wendy does it, she is kicking loose bars out of her cage.

When Scottie finally figures out where Wendy has gone, she sets out in pursuit. A scene in which Scottie arrives at a hospital just after Wendy has slipped away is telling: When Scottie becomes upset and starts shouting, a hospital administrator treats her exactly the way Scottie had treated Wendy earlier in the film when Wendy didn’t want to study “names and places.” The irony seems lost on Scottie, who seems to feel it’s okay to treat Wendy in ways that Scottie, herself, feels disrespected and violated by. Later, though, Scottie quietly confesses to her teenage son, “I think this is my fault.”

And it is.

It’s not entirely Scottie’s fault that Wendy has run off, but it is Scottie’s fault, and Audrey’s fault, and the fault of the entire system behind the group home, and the eye contact training, and the assumptions of incompetence, that lead authorities to believe that Autistic people cannot engage in supported decision making but must have the details of our lives managed for us by a non-autistic majority, “for our own good.”

I hope you will watch Please Stand By. We need to support films like this so that more films like this (and films even better than this one!) are made. We need to send a clear message that we applaud the positive representation and want to see more of it. And we need to speak about what we liked and disliked about the story and its implementation so that we can help to shape future films to include more Autistic actors in bigger roles, more Autistic writers and directors, more positive representation of Autistic lives, more paid Autistic consultants working in movies and television, and more messages about the value of Autistic lives. Oh, and more Klingon. The world definitely needs more movies with Patton Oswalt speaking Klingon.

Live long and prosper.