In 2012 Ben Lewin made The Sessions, an irreverent and perceptive fact-based dramedy with John Hawkes as a horny, lovelorn polio survivor in an iron lung, and Helen Hunt as his sex surrogate. Lewin, too, had polio as a child, which may account for his nuanced ability to picture the disabled as, you know, people who happen to be carrying an extra load.
Lewin's new film about a young woman with autism mines disability terrain again. But the writer-director seems less at ease, less able to make the material his own and take the risky chances with tone and character that made The Sessions such a fresh delight. In every respect but one, the perfectly pleasant drama Please Stand By is a standard American coming-of-age tale about a plucky youngster who takes to the road to prove her mettle to herself and other interested parties. She has a screenplay tucked under her arm for the journey, but that's not the twist here.
Wendy, who's played in a pleasingly low key by Dakota Fanning, is on the spectrum, and she's played here simply and efficiently, as a whole person with disadvantages that make life difficult. Hugging and eye contact are out of the question, and she needs strict routines to make daily living workable. Wendy has made great strides in an enlightened group-home run by a mostly unflappable manager named Scottie (hang on to that name), played by the excellent Toni Collette. But the human longing for connection, for feeling useful and productive and capable, are all in place; they're just harder for someone like Wendy to fulfill. She wants to go home to her older sister, Audrey (Alice Eve), who did her best to raise Wendy after the premature death of their single mother, but who now has a family of her own to consider.
That's one roadblock; another is that the deadline to enter Wendy's Star Trek-inspired script in a Hollywood competition is almost up. Star Trek fans (several of the latter appear in pudding-basin haircuts to test Wendy's trivia savvy) will understand from the get-go why Wendy is obsessed with the television series. The rest of us must wait for a charming cameo at the end by a familiar face playing a cop who's fluent in Klingon.
After a debilitating row with Audrey, Wendy lights out for Los Angeles, carrying only her script and her savings from her soul-crushing job at a local Cinnabon. In her bag is a pooch named Pete whose cuteness is fun, but a net loss that undercuts Lewin's intent, which is to get us to see that if the everyday uncertainties of living are hard enough for those of us lucky enough to possess navigational skills, they're so much tougher for someone whose equilibrium depends on adherence to rigid routine.
More than most young woman on the road alone, Wendy is painfully vulnerable to exploitation. But here Lewin loses his way. Adversity strikes, but mildly, while benign strangers (Marla Gibbs!) keep popping up to run interference and help Wendy fend for herself. From here on Please Stand By deflates into a perfectly watchable but soft parable in which a can-do young American loses a battle, only to win the war of growing up, while the adults in the room confront their own unhelpful rigidities. That's all very tidy, but if you want to really see what it's like to be and raise a child with autism, watch the terrific Parenthood wherever it may stream.