Please Stand By (2017) gives pause to those whose loved ones may have to one day rely on the kindness of strangers. #ReviewThere’s a slightness to “Please Stand By” that may appear to some to be a superficiality. There’s nothing particularly ground-breaking in this story of Wendy, a “Star Trek”-obsessed autistic young woman heading off on a cross-country quest to hand in her 500-page screenplay to an open submissions contest at the Paramount lot in Hollywood. But what seems unremarkable – even pedestrian – to the majority masks a whole subsurface world of emotion and anxiety for those who know or care for or love someone who has a cognitive or developmental disability.
Anchored by a well-judged performance from Dakota Fanning and featuring great support from the likes of Toni Collette and Alice Eve, “Please Stand By” may offer some small measure of whimsy and wit by riffing on “Star Trek” fandom but, like the finest examples of that storied TV show, it uses that plot as a backdrop to explore not only Wendy’s personal journey and her relationships with her semi-estranged family but also holds a mirror up to society as a whole, reflecting the mundane, everyday callousness with which we can treat the most vulnerable among us.
Indeed, watching as a parent of a child with additional needs, I can’t speak directly to the accuracy with which autism is portrayed but I can say it wasn’t the more melodramatic, soap opera-esque twists and turns of the cross-country plot which alarmed me or gave me cause for concern. It was the smaller things, the petty, mundane everyday ignorance with which those in authority or a position to help this vulnerable young woman treated her. The impatience of ticket clerks, shop keepers and others who don’t or won’t take the time to think for a moment and offer compassion and support instead of irritation and dismissiveness; the inflexible attitude informed by the enforcement of rules rather than the employment of empathy. It was those small, trivial moments which chilled me far more than the somewhat predictable moment when Wendy is fleeced by a pair of opportunistic grifters. The inability to rely on the kindness of strangers is something which should make us all blanch.
In placing the character, to begin with, in a home rather than with her family, the film provides the Wendy with a refreshing degree of autonomy and agency and ultimately the quest to hand in her screenplay becomes something of a rite of passage in itself, with wider consequences for Wendy’s life going forward. It’s quite the harrowing journey as Wendy struggles determinedly to reach her goal despite the odds stacked against her, and to the film’s credit it doesn’t attempt to lighten the load with much in the way of humour or light-heartedness until the closing moments when – somewhat anachronistically at the moment – there is the redemptive act of human kindness you’ve been crying out for, in the form of an LA Cop – specifically a compassionate, Klingon-speaking cop named Frank (Patton Oswalt).
It’s a worthwhile watch for anyone, but there’s no denying for the right audience, it’s going to touch a nerve. If you know, you know.