Ben Lewin’s Please Stand By aims to be an emotional testament to the strength and resilience of someone living with autism. Or maybe it’s a mash note to Star Trek. Lewin and screenwriter Michael Golamco deserve some credit for at least attempting to make these two separate ambitions dovetail. But, try as they (and lead actor Dakota Fanning) might, the whole thing just refuses to jell.
Fanning plays Wendy, a Cinnabon employee and massive Trek fan who lives in an adult care facility in San Francisco. In a plot device out of some 1960s teenybopper movie, Paramount Pictures is holding a Star Trek screenplay-writing contest and Wendy is just putting the finishing touches on an epic about Kirk and Spock separated from their ship and crew, wandering a desert planet; Lewin’s most interesting touch is to show us occasional clips of the Kubrickian buddy movie Wendy must be picturing. With the deadline fast approaching, Wendy decides to leave the confines of her group home and journey to Los Angeles to turn her tome in to the studio personally.
Please Stand By‘s attempts to get us into the mind of Wendy are stymied by a clunky and blunt screenplay. Her backstory is colored in by that old trope, the home movie. But the film can’t even get that right. We see Wendy as a child having some sort of fit in the presence of her sister (played as an adult by Alice Eve). One of the things we’re supposed to be learning is how much of a saint their single mother was before her early death. But what kind of person keeps recording instead of helping her kid when they’re obviously upset?
Character development, in this case, is best left in the hands of the cast. Former child star Fanning has remained a present and immersive actor. Eve’s character has largely moved on from her sister but Wendy has emotional support from her caretaker, Scottie (ha), played by the always reliable Toni Collette. The wonderful Marla Gibbs shows up too but then disappears so suddenly it feels like scenes got left out.
With sunny music by kid’s movie regular composer Heitor Pereira (Despicable Me 3, The Nut Job 2) and an adorable little dog named Pete, Please Stand By operates from a place of cuteness. I’d say with relief that it’s not the tongue in cheek type popularized by indie-lite fare like Little Miss Sunshine but, on the other hand, at least that would be a more distinctive point of view.
Please Stand By is a sweet-natured, well-intentioned movie with a solid cast but it’s disappointingly unwilling to dip beneath its own surface. I don’t know enough about autism to know whether Wendy’s identification with the logic-obsessed Spock is insightful or reductive. But, with its frustratingly persistent shallowness, this movie certainly isn’t going to be the one to teach me.