Directed by: Mick Jackson
Premise: A biopic of Temple Grandin (Claire Danes) an autistic woman who became one of the top scientists in the livestock industry.
What Works: Films that deal with main characters who are disabled or have special needs often fall into an unexpected trap. Most of these films are made with good intentions and so the storytellers attempt to portray disabled characters in the most positive light. But the singular pursuit of positivity is not necessarily going to lead to the best story. Films about minorities of ethnicity or ability may inadvertently make their characters into flat caricatures and this robs the subject of his or her humanity, turning the good intentions of the filmmakers back on themselves. Temple Grandin is an exception as it tells the true story of a woman with autism. This film preserves Grandin’s humanity and in fact organizes its entire story around her growing ability to empathize with others and links it to her professional pursuits. This is a very smartly assembled narrative, opening on her difficulties as a child when autism was not widely understood. Although Grandin possesses many of the antisocial traits associated with autism, the film shows scenes from her point of view and that creates empathy; when she acts out the viewer understands why. At the same time, the filmmakers do not condescend either to her or to the audience. Her occasional outbursts and belligerent behavior are understood but not excused and at no point is the viewer made to feel guilty in that conspicuous and sadomasochistic way that liberals secretly love nor is this the kind of ignorantly oversimplified Horatio Alger story that appeals to conservatives. In this film Grandin needs to learn how to function in society but her educators, employers, and associates need to make accommodations in order to allow her to excel. Aside from a very well written script, Temple Grandin is successful as a film for two other reasons. First is the performance by Claire Danes. The actress commits herself to the role and like the rest of the film, Danes understands the character, embraces her humanity, and portrays her struggles, setbacks, and successes earnestly. The other successful element of this film is the manipulation of the cinematic medium to convey Grandin’s experience. Director Mick Jackson makes creative choices that utilize the sound and image of the film so that viewers further empathize with Grandin’s character and understand her thought processes, which connect her personal experience with her professional studies and lead to her innovative ideas for the livestock industry.
What Doesn’t: There is one caveat to Temple Grandin, but it isn’t a flaw of the film; it is the way the picture may function for those who see it. It’s inappropriate to say that Temple Grandin fosters false hope but the experience of viewing a movie, especially one that compresses several decades of a life into a two-hour film, is a very different thing from going through the day-to-day struggles of a person with disabilities. The risk of a film like this is that it might characterize success as too easy or as fatalistic. That is always the risk of an inspirational narrative and the filmmakers of Temple Grandin are entirely responsible with their storytelling. But viewers, especially those who presently work with those who have special needs, should bear in mind that this is a particular case and not use it as a standard bearer.
DVD extras: Commentary track and a featurette.
Bottom Line: Without getting didactic, Temple Grandin manages to be a film that will do much to spread understanding about autism and, most importantly for a dramatization, create empathy for those afflicted with the condition. It is also a terrific story and a well-made film and that alone makes it worth a viewer’s time.
Episode: #374 (February 5, 2012)