Wendy (Dakota Fanning) is a young autistic woman who lives in a group home run by the brisk but compassionate Scottie (Toni Collette), where a regimented daily schedule keeps Wendy on track and still allows her time for her greatest passion — watching Star Trek (the original series) every night and penning her own Star Trek script for a fan screenwriting contest sponsored by Paramount Pictures.
She also pines to go live with her older sister Audrey (Alice Eve) and Audrey’s husband and baby daughter, but Audrey isn’t sure Wendy is quite ready, even though she’s smart, growing more independent and even holding down a job at a local Cinnabon.
Wendy’s skills at surviving in the outside world are put to the test, however, when she misses the deadline to mail her 400-page script and decides to deliver it to Paramount in person — which necessitates an unauthorized and potentially regiment-shattering bus trip from Oakland to Los Angeles. With her little dog Pete in tow, Wendy heads out on her own — but the trip is soon beset with difficulties and obstacles as she doggedly makes her way south, Scottie and Audrey not far behind to retrieve her.
Please Stand By is directed by Ben Lewin from a script by Michael Golamco (based on his play), and as in Lewin’s previous film, 2012’s The Sessions, the director hits the right note in presenting a person with a disability as a whole human being and not just a collection of tics or quirks.
He’s helped immeasurably by a tremendous performance from Fanning, who shows us the entire range of Wendy’s advantages and disadvantages without resorting to histrionics or showy tricks. Fanning is subtle and relaxed in the role, making it easy to understand the way Wendy sees the world and especially her love of Kirk, Spock and the Star Trek universe.
The movie also has some nice thing to say about fandom along the way (especially thanks to a third-act cameo from supernerd Patton Oswalt) and gives ample time to both Collette and Eve’s characters, with Collette in particular making it look effortless in the role of the sensitive yet no-nonsense Scottie.
Less impressive is the more whimsical way in which Wendy’s journey progresses: although she meet thieves and other mean people along the way, one never gets the sense that she is any real danger. Even having her sleep all night outside a Bakersfield bus station doesn’t seem to present any problems, something we suspect wouldn’t quite be the case in real life.
Slight, charming and languorously paced, Please Stand By is a small movie that says some perfectly poignant things about its characters and their struggles, but never gets deeper than that. The cast is great though, while the sight of two characters speaking Klingon to each other is a little delight for Trek geeks. And from what little we are shown, it seems like Wendy also wrote one hell of a good Trek script.
Please Stand By opens today (Friday, Jan. 26).