Wendy (Dakota Fanning), a young woman with autism living in a care home in Oakland, California is obsessed with Star Trek. While the world outside seems inhospitable and impenetrable, Wendy's love of the seminal sci-fi show fires her imagination and spirit. So when Paramount Pictures hold a screenwriting contest, Wendy pens a four-hundred and fifty page script in hopes of winning the $100,000 prize. After missing the deadline, Wendy sneaks away from her patient if long-suffering caregiver, Scottie (Toni Colette), and sets off on a long and very challenging journey to Hollywood to hand in her script personally.
Movies have a regrettable tendency to use autism as a source of quirky or worse yet cutesy stories. While there are traces of that in Please Stand By (including silly asides involving Wendy's cute little dog), happily a sincere script, solid direction and empathetic performances from a fine ensemble cast go some distance towards grounding the drama. Based on a play by screenwriter Michael Golamco, regular scribe on fantasy TV show Grimm, the film benefits from a highly engaging lead performance the preternaturally gifted Dakota Fanning. Fanning ably captures the affecting and exasperating qualities of a headstrong yet naturally vulnerable young autistic woman without over-doing the traditional tics and histrionics. In the less showier roles Toni Colette and Alice Eve (who of course also graced Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)) provide exemplary support. While Colette's subplot about her struggle coping with a wayward son (River Alexander) does not gel convincingly with the main storyline, Eve shoulders a more affecting strand as Wendy's sister, Audrey, a new mother wracked with guilt for distancing herself from someone whose needs she can no longer manage.
Golamco builds his plot upon Star Trek's much celebrated ability to provide solace and inspiration for the isolated, vulnerable and plain different. Along with the obvious comparison between Wendy's struggle to make sense of the world and those faced by the similarly emotionally distant Mr. Spock, parallels are drawn between the final frontier and the heroine's own, equally challenging and perilous voyage of discovery. As Wendy soldiers on through setbacks and adversity she proves more resourceful and resilient than anyone expected, including herself. The journey becomes a challenge as daunting and ultimately triumphant as anything accomplished by the U.S.S. Enterprise. Star Trek fans may lament the absence of authentic clips from their beloved show although you do get to hear what sound an awful lot like the voices of Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto. Australian filmmaker Ben Lewin - whose eclectic, globe-hopping career encompasses film and television from Aussie mystery thriller Georgia (1988) and British farce The Favour, the Watch and the Very Big Fish (1991) to probably his most acclaimed film The Sessions (which also dealt with disability and yearning) (2012) - brings out the whimsy inherent in Golamco's screenplay but also its layer of sobering sensitivity in line with the latter Oscar-nominated study of a paraplegic's relationship with a sex surrogate.
Along the road trip there are brief but memorable turns from promising Happy Death Day (2017) star Jessica Rothe as a deceptively sweet young mom and a delightful cameo from comedian, screenwriter and fan boy favourite Patton Oswalt as a Trek-loving cop. Also to its credit, Please Stand By heroically sidesteps the cloying fairytale conclusion it seems to be building towards in favour of something more honest yet still uplifting.