This past year, there have been many attempts to give proper representation to characters on the autism spectrum. “The Good Doctor,” starring Freddie Highmore (“Bates Motel”), found a receptive audience with its portrayal of a young surgeon on the spectrum. Highmore’s dedicated performance as Shaun Murphy earned him a Golden Globe nomination. On the other hand, Netflix’s “Atypical” received mixed reviews for its treatment of the sensitive subject. Keir Gilchrist (“It Follows”) wrongly transforms the emotional trials of a person with autism into a cold impression, disappointing fans with his characterization of a depressed teen akin to his performance in “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” Add “Please Stand By” to the list of earnest attempts to destigmatize this mental condition in media. Unfortunately, like “Atypical,” “Please Stand By” lacks the caliber of a nuanced actor or quality script to succeed.
Wendy (Dakota Fanning, “Brimstone”), a young woman on the spectrum, lives in a group home. When she hears about a Star Trek script contest, she eagerly goes to work writing her own installment. She has a rigid schedule to help her through the day, including shifts at a nearby Cinnabon. Soon, the submission deadline arrives, but Wendy fails to deliver her script to the post office on time. In order to get her script to Los Angeles, Wendy must leave her group home and reliable schedule to embark on an adventure. Along the way, with only her 429-page screenplay and pet Chihuahua for company, she meets some helpful and not so helpful people. Through her dedication, she hopes to show her older sister Audrey (Alice Eve, “Before We Go”) that she can be trusted to return home despite her past outbursts.
For a story that focuses on a character with an internalized condition, the lead actor must carry the film. Dakota Fanning gives her best effort but falls short. Sometimes, when bad actors portray characters with neurological disorders, the result is catastrophically offensive. Thankfully, Fanning avoids this fate through her earnest approach to Wendy. However, if it weren’t for her wide-eyed innocent look, Fanning’s performance would be an utter flop. She lacks the depth to really explore Wendy’s need to share her creative work or her struggles and the lackluster script does not help. Instead, a strong supporting cast bears the brunt of the heavy lifting.
The always spectacular Toni Collette (“The Way, Way Back”) adds warmth and thoughtfulness to her role as Wendy’s psychologist Scottie. Collette steals the spotlight in every scene, overshadowing the litany of plot holes and unresolved plotlines. Tony Revolori (“Dope”), playing Nemo, Wendy’s coworker at the Cinnabon, provides humor. His cheeky lines and energy upstage Fanning’s blank, deadpan look. However, the standing ovation goes to Wendy’s Chihuahua Pete and his perfectly timed, judgemental faces. The fact that the dog is the highlight of the film goes to show the mediocrity of “Please Stand By.”