Temple Grandin (2010) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Temple Grandin (2010)

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ANDREW LIKEThe real Temple Grandin is a fascinating and energetic person who cares deeply about the animals that she works with.  Any film about her has to deal with the issue of her autism, which could lead to any number of inappropriate mishandlings.  But Temple Grandin, her biopic directed by Mick Jackson, is a wonderful piece of entertainment that boasts a surprisingly good performance from Claire Danes as Temple.

The broad strokes of the plot sound like they come from a screenwriters conference, but really pull from Temple's life.  She has Autism, and her mother Eustacia (Julia Ormond) makes the decision to put Temple with her Aunt Anne (Catherine O'Hara) for the summer.  Temple finally finds some peace and begins working with the animals, inventing ways to make their lives easier.

Eventually, with the guidance of the helpful Professor Carlock (David Strathairn), she begins research to publish her findings.  In the process she comes into conflict with some ranchers, who think that what they've been doing is just fine thanks and don't need the help of any autistic woman.  The movie, much like real life, finds Temple on the winning side partly thanks to her ideas and partly thanks to smart ranching competitors who recognize the value in Temple's work.

Anytime Temple is trying to figure a problem out the camera shifts to her vantage point. It works very well, and isn't overdone to distraction.

More so than a lot of movies, this one lives or dies based on Danes' performance as Temple Grandin.  I'm very happy to report that she never falters a single moment that she is on screen.  I like her quite a bit, but I never thought that she had the range to pull something off like this.  She doesn't make Temple a one-dimensional mental case, but recognizes the complexity of her emotions and how expressive she is with them when they finally come out.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, if a bit lacking in much to do.  David Strathairn and Catherine O'Hara both bring warmth and intelligence to their roles as her mentor and loving aunt, but that's about all they're able to do.  They mostly exist as pinions to keep Temple on track and not much else.  However her mother has a more complicated role and that's where Temple gets an added edge.

Temple's mother wouldn't be out of place in an especially good episode of Mad Men.  She is judged harshly for raising an autistic child because, as a doctor calmly explains to her in the beginning, it's the mother's fault her daughter has a form of schizophrenia (still diagnosed like this) because the mother did not give enough love.  So Julia Ormond, as Eustacia, navigates a similarly tricky minefield of potential cliches.  She endures with a kind of angry strength and genuine desire to see Temple happy, while trying to conform to life style standards that the 50's said were best.

Finally, the movie has a blast with the way Temple looks at things.  She thinks in pictures, and while this invites a director to overindulge in visual excess, director Mick Jackson keeps things simple.  When she makes connections the film flashes back to her memory of visual connections with the idea, and often shows her working out problems visually.  This leads to amusing moments, like when she meets a rancher and immediately recognizes him as a cowboy; or bittersweet one's, as in my favorite when her horse Chestnut dies and she's told that he'll be with her forever in her memory.  Then there he is, alive and galloping in her mind, and in pictures on magazines, and nuzzling her hair...

It's a shame that the director and company could not find anything fresh to do with the school scenes, but some of the moments are fun.

It was a beautiful way to deal with death and, to be honest, made me a little jealous that I can't do the same thing with my mind.

The biggest weakness of Temple Grandin comes when it makes obvious dramatic statements in the dialogue or tries to approach some of the old school movie cliches.  This is a film built more on it's visuals and performances than what is written on the page.  When Grandin places her hand on a dying animal and says that she felt God flowing through her, it's not a moment that comes off honest and more like someone having a "breakthrough" on their writers pad.

Similarly, while Straithairn is excellent in the role, he has to work with some of the most tired school movie scenes in existence.  There's the moment where he announces to his fellow teachers that Grandin truly is a genuis!  And of course they are in denial.  Then there's the moment where he is inspiring Grandin!  And of course she's inspired because this is both the true story and because the film can't find anything interesting to do in these moments.

In a sense, they were necessary to connect the film from point A to point B, but I can't downgrade the film too much because of what it gets right.  The central conflict between Grandin and the ranchers, plus her mother, plays out very well and Danes never missteps as Grandin.  As a tribute to the real Temple Grandin it's wonderful, and as a film it's nice and entertaining if not challenging.  It's a great movie to put on during a bad day when you need to see some things just go right for a change.

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Temple Grandin (2010)

Directed by Mick Jackson.
Written by Christopher Monger and Merritt Johnson.
Starring Claire Danes, Julia Ormond, Catherine O'Hara, and David Strathairn.

Posted by Andrew

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