One of the most interesting trends currently making its way through the small screen collective consciousness is an embrace of normalized, unacknowledged autism. Whether we’re talking about Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory” or Brick on “The Middle” or Dr. Brennan on “Bones,” TV is full of characters who almost certainly fit somewhere on the autism spectrum, even if none of them will ever utter the A-word. Without knowing it, casual viewers are being educated that autism is more than just Rainman counting toothpicks.
That education takes a big leap forward in HBO’s “Temple Grandin,” a glossy and glorified movie-of-the-week that takes an unblinking look at living with autism. The drama isn’t about beating or curing an unbeatable and incurable condition, so much as learning to work with autism and nurture those who live with autism to meet their full potential which, in the case of Temple Grandin herself, turned out to be nearly limitless.
It’s a beautiful and inspirational story turned into a movie that becomes increasingly formulaic as it goes along.
[Full review of “Temple Grandin,” which premieres on Saturday (Feb. 6) on HBO, after the break…]
The first thing that ought to be said is that HBO has gone with a terrible name for its telefilm. That doesn’t mean that for a person, “Temple Grandin” is a bad name at all. It’s actually a name with a tremendous amount of character and a name which quite suits the actual person in question. For a movie, one that will mostly play to viewers with no prior awareness of the real person in question, it conjures up perplexing religious imagery. I’m sure there’s a reason HBO didn’t use “Thinking in Pictures,” the title of Grandin’s autobiography, but I can’t quite figure it.
So “Temple Grandin” is not about a reform Jewish congregation in a small Missouri town, though the story of the Chosen People of the Ozarks would be fodder for a terrific Sundance movie.
It’s about Temple Grandin, an author, inventor, livestock industry consultant and professor, who also happens to be a high-functioning autistic. More than that, in the hands of director Mick Jackson (“Volcano,” “The Bodyguard”), “Temple Grandin” is about seeing the world in the way the main character might see it, or at least that’s what the movie is about at its best.
For the early chunk of the movie, Jackson and his production team attempt to — as the title of Grandin’s autobiography suggests — think in pictures. That sounds redundant for a movie, which inherently ought to be thinking in pictures, but Jackson has an early vision that combines Grandin’s drawings and a clever editing trick to simulate the importance of image-recall to Grandin’s thought process. the first half-hour of “Temple Grandin” is immediately striking because Jackson’s previous film and television work has offered only occasional hints at this sort of confident point-of-view. Jackson probably borrows a little heavily from Ron Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind,” but if you’re looking for ways to visualize an an atypical intellectual methology , you might as well crib from the Oscar winner.
The pleasures of Jackson’s flair are short-lived, as Christopher Monger and Merritt Johnson’s script becomes increasingly bogged-down in Problem Picture convention, attempting to trace each minor victory in Grandin’s progression from troubled teen to misunderstood college student to initially underestimated animal studies guru. Jackson is less interested in the point-by-point biopic aspects of the storytelling and has no creative touch to depict Grandin’s very personal connection with animals she advocates for. As a result, viewers are left with 45 minutes of efficient animal vaccinations and human slaughter facilities without much payoff.
By that point, all you’re doing is watching star Claire Danes, which was always the point of “Temple Grandin” anyway. Perhaps because of the main character’s difficulties forming relationships, there are only a couple notable supporting roles in the movie, with Julia Ormond as Temple’s doing-the-best-she-can mother and David Strathairn as the Obligatory Kindly Mentor. You could almost come away from “Temple Grandin” thinking of it as a one-women show and I can imagine a more courageous version of the script that comes closer to taking that approach.
With her curly blond hair, slight build and ill-fitting attire there are moments that Danes looks like she’s perilously close to transitioning into a Harpo Marx biopic, but mostly “Temple Grandin” serves as the purest imaginable Emmy showcase for a young actress who probably hasn’t had a role this good since “My So-Called Life” made her into America’s awkward younger sister.
I’d compare Danes’ work in “Temple Grandin” to Drew Barrymore’s Golden Globe-winning turn in “Grey Gardens.” This is Acting with a capital A, meaning that it’s a performance that’s heavy on impersonation and theatrical “business.” I never for a second forgot that I was watching Claire Danes bucking for acting awards just as “Grey Gardens” never ceased to feel like Barrymore’s bid for acting legitimacy. But guess what? Not all acting needs to be invisible and not all acting needs to make your forget you’re watching acting.
“Grey Gardens” was the best work of Barrymore’s career, because in addition to committing absolutely to the externalization of Little Edie, she gave her an inner life as well. The same is true of Danes’ performance in “Temple Grandin.” She has the hair and the wardrobe and the accent and the posture and those are all superficial hallmarks of an impersonation, but what she does just as well is show the incremental growth of a character who might otherwise be defined by her limitations. Watching Danes in “Temple Grandin,” none of the work she put into the role feels invisible, but she’s acting hard and well. Based on HBO’s slate for the rest of the year and based on HBO’s track record with such things, Danes looks to be the network’s Best Actress hope for the Emmys and beyond and it’s a safe bet.
If you wander around YouTube, you can find whole speeches and presentations by the real Temple Grandin, who has to be one of the most impressive people going. She’s an engrossing and enlightening speaker and getting sucked into one YouTube speech for 45 minutes left me far more interested in Grandin than anything in the 100 minute movie, including Danes’ admirable performance. I guess, then, that “Temple Grandin” may work best as a gateway project, if it gets people to read the real Temple’s book and watch her lectures, if it encourages viewers to learn more about autism. And if it happens to get Danes awards attention and new jobs, that’s also a plus.
“Temple Grandin” premieres on Saturday, Feb. 6 at 8 p.m. on HBO.