Temple Grandin

Standing in a room that has strangely interesting dimensions is an equally strange and interesting woman. Wearing cowboy boots, jeans with a large belt buckle and a sequined shirt tied off with a bandana, a redhead begins “My name is Temple Grandin. I’m not like other people.” She walks across the room but as she does so, she appears to grow in size, almost to the point of outgrowing the room. She continues. “I think in pictures, and I connect them.” So begins the film. It is clearly an oddball sort of beginning, the kind that seems to fit the film’s hero and protagonist, a peculiar genius, Dr. Temple Grandin.

After first seeing Temple introduce herself in the opening scene, you quickly understand what she means when she claims that she is “not like other people.” To look at her, you wouldn’t guess there’s anything different about her at all, but after a few minutes you will notice that she is quite different, in the way she speaks, thinks and perceives the world around her. Hers is the face of a new kind of mental disability, one that hasn’t been given much time or thought until recently; a social and psychological disorder we now call Autism.

The story centers around Temple’s “breakthrough” years but briefly flashes back to her ridicule filled high school days and as a 4 year-old who cannot speak. Temple is going to attend Franklin Pierce College in the fall, but her mother wants her to spend the summer with her Aunt & Uncle on their cattle ranch in Arizona. It is here that we first discover her abnormalities and unconventional perspective on life as she discovers similarities between her Uncle’s jittery cows and her own sense of nervousness and anxiety; both are unable to feel control around people. For Temple, this means that interference of her personal space and slight changes to her idea of normality lead to panic attacks. She learns to cope with her uneasiness while observing cattle being put into a livestock holding cell for inoculation, a device she later re-designs and builds for herself that simulates a hug – something she refuses to get from a human being. This is just one of the scenes that bring to life the heart-breaking nature of autism and its affects on the natural desires human’s have for physical and emotional connections with each other.

The film is willing to spend time on Temple’s day to day struggles with autism. It’s neither dull nor exciting but all of the actors are incredibly engaging. David Strathairn plays Temple’s high school science professor – the first teacher who understands her struggles and yet is willing to look past her social awkwardness enough to see the “unique” mind behind Temple’s eccentric mannerisms. He encourages others to look at things like Temple does, using different perspectives to understand problems and discover solutions. Julia Ormond plays Temple’s mother, who also labored to love Temple when she was a child who couldn’t speak until the age of five and fought off any attempt of physical embracement. Both Strathairn and Ormond (deservedly) won Emmy’s for their supporting roles. Claire Danes, who played Temple, also won the Emmy for Outstanding Actress in a Lead Role. Danes, who I’ve never been particularly impressed with, really surprised me with her portrayal of Grandin. She never uttered a word that didn’t fit perfectly into her character and it never felt like she was mocking or copying an individual with autism. She sounds exactly like Temple does. She will hopefully earn some better roles with this performance.

Temple Grandin & Claire Danes at the 2010 Emmy Awards

The film was directed by Mick Jackson, whose previous credits include The Bodyguard and several made for TV movies. It takes a special kind of director to helm a made for TV movie, especially a character drama. Nowadays it is simply too easy to change the channel if you get bored with a down to earth, issues driven film but Jackson keeps it moving fast enough to be compelling. He also won the Emmy for Best Director in a Made for TV movie.

Autism has caught the attention of Hollywood, Pennsylvania Ave. and Main Street lately. Comedy Central is airing Night of Too Many Stars: An Overbooked Benefit for Autism Education on Thursday, October 21 with the likes of Jon Stewart, Steve Carrell, Tracy Morgan, Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon performing comedy routines for the charity. Legislation has been pushed through Congress to fund Autism studies and other social disorders like Asperger Syndrome. Medical data reports and Autism Awareness groups have made their way onto local news stations and papers, into healthcare systems, and into school programs, all with the intent on raising awareness and discovering more details about this disorder. For me, Temple Grandin was the first time it was personified. It demonstrates how autism and other forms of mental illness are different, as most autistic people are actually very intelligent and skilled in very particular areas, but struggle with discovering new territory and social interaction. And while the film does an excellent job of informing viewers about the nature and characteristics of Autism, it also succeeds as a well told story about a woman who was able to overcome the setbacks that the disorder presents.

I gave this film 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Editors Note: Its possible that you have never heard of this film before. I only discovered it recently when it received the Emmy for “Best Made for TV Movie.” You can rent it from Redbox, Netflix and Blockbuster. It is a “based on real events” inspirational story that actually stays true to real life. Temple has gone on to become a leading voice on how to deal with and help autistic children learn and develop in society. It’s all the more inspiring to know Temple’s real life experiences include earning her Masters Degree and Ph.D. in Animal Studies from Arizona State University and Illinois University respectively and becoming a lecturer on the subject at Colorado State University.

This film is rated PG for some mature thematic elements, involving psychological issues.

About Micah Lovell

Once I ate four brussell sprouts just to say that I could actually do it. O.K. I lied. I only managed to eat two.
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