In preparation for the writing of this article, I came upon a vlog posted by user Sez Francis on her YouTube channel actingmylife. Francis is autistic. She’s a young woman with hundreds of videos on her channel concerning a variety of subjects, from her own experiences with autism and epilepsy, to her love of animals and Disney movies. In the video posted in December of last year, she expresses how she has long been hoping to see a young autistic actress starring in a film or the portrayal of a young autistic female character on the big screen. In the little representation autism has had in the movies, the majority of its depictions have been through male characters – whether that be Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond in Rain Man, almost always mentioned in the discussion of autism in cinema, or Leonardo DiCaprio’s Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
Autistic female characters have appeared in cinema before, most notably Sigourney Weaver’s Linda in Snow Cake. What Francis wants is a character she can really relate to – someone her own age. Ben Lewin’s Please Stand By provides that, presenting an adolescent woman with autism played by none other than Dakota Fanning. It’s what girls like Sez Francis have been waiting for. Her own reactions to the trailer for Please Stand By are heartening, with her enthusiasm abundant. It’s a testament to the power of cinematic representation. If Black Panther hadn’t already shown to astounding success earlier this year, it matters.
Fanning herself has experience in the field of developmental disorder on-screen. She performed alongside Sean Penn in I Am Sam, playing the daughter of Penn’s character – a father with an intellectual disability fighting for parental custody. Fanning was only seven at the time and the role essentially launched her career. Since then, she has proven herself to be a fine actor with memorable performances in War of the Worlds, Coraline and American Pastoral. It’ll be crucial to Please Stand By’s artistic integrity whether Fanning is able to portray her character with a nuance that transcends tropes – as a rounded human rather than a series of eccentric behaviours.
The trailer seems promising. Fanning plays Wendy, a young woman with Asperger’s syndrome who’s obsessed with Star Trek. The narrative follows her in a quest to submit her own Star Trek spec script for a writing competition whilst going through the trials and tribulations of her everyday life. It looks parts funny, parts inspiring, with a likeable supporting cast consisting of Alice Eve, Toni Collette, Patton Oswalt and Tony Revolori.
Already released in the US, critical response to Please Stand By and to Fanning’s performance has been mixed. Stephanie Zacharek of TIME commended Fanning for playing Wendy “as a person and not a condition,” whereas Mike D’Angelo of The A.V. Club argues that she “comes across as a collection of quirky tics rather than a credible human being.” It’s uncertain whether the film will see the light of day in the UK. If it does, it will be intriguing to see the responses to this particular portrayal of autism and the debate over whether it is productive or otherwise.
Please Stand By (2018), directed by Ben Lewin, premiered at Austin Film Festival 2017. UK release date and certificate TBC.