In Ben Lewin’s twee coming-of-age comic drama Please Stand By, a young woman on the spectrum becomes obsessed with entering her Star Trek spec script into a contest. Dakota Fanning, who plays young Wendy, seems to have done her research, portraying a believable character and drawing sympathy from the audience without making Wendy pitiable. But the film itself is often flat, akin to a very well-directed after-school special crafted exclusively to dramatize what it might be like to either live on the high-functioning end of the spectrum or care for someone who’s there. All the supporting characters and storylines exist only to reinforce that Wendy has a disability. It’s possible that audiences might appreciate illumination about the intricacies of neurodiversity, and that “explainer” movies like these are beneficial — hell, even necessary — to catch people up, but the film never transcends its PSA nature. At least it’s quite a sweet PSA!
Wendy identifies with Star Trek’s Spock, a character who does not express emotion the way the humans around him do. We hear Wendy’s script in voice-over as she writes it, poignant moments that emphasize the beauty in being different and that those who persevere through hardships may learn valuable lessons. But these bits of voice-over, the most thoughtful, reflective elements here, suggest that perhaps this story should have been told in the form of a novel rather than a film. We lose that reflection in the action.
Wendy has been brushed off by her sister Audrey (Alice Eve) — for understandable reasons, as Wendy is a handful, and Audrey is a new mom. Wendy realizes that the only person who’s going to help her get her script into the contest on time is herself and thus embarks on a journey from San Francisco to Paramount Studios in Los Angeles. Everywhere she goes, strangers stop to help her, the naif on the side of the road. Even when she’s inevitably mugged, the mugger is quite sorry about it. And when a ticket taker at the bus station reacts the way someone in real life might when met with a passenger who doesn’t make eye contact and holds up a line, it’s almost shocking; until that moment, Lewin had us living in a fantasy world. But maybe that’s also his point — modeling behavior for how one should ideally interact with the neurodiverse.
Ultimately, Please Stand By is a teaching tool. It’s admirable of Lewin not to push this story too far into melodramatic territory, treatment that could be both reductive and offensive. And maybe Please Stand By will ring true for audiences and families looking for lighter fare depicting someone like themselves on the screen — The Good Doctor and the new Sesame Street character Julia are doing the same thing. But, oh, how I look forward to the day when a neurodiverse character doesn’t have to be explained in a story and can just exist like any other.