This made-for-HBO movie seemingly offers the superficial trappings of the standard three-hanky biopic, including a plucky, misunderstood heroine who overcomes a tremendous physical/mental handicap to achieve personal greatness while teaching us all to be better people. That it manages to avoid almost all of the clichéd trappings of the genre is a testament to the talents of its creators as well as the bona fide remarkable story it tells.?
Diagnosed at an early age with autism, Ms. Grandin was fortunate to be surrounded by a loving (and financially well-off) family that were able to provide her access to teachers and mentors able to bring out her remarkable abilities by recognizing how her brain operates differently from most (she talks of being a primarily “visual thinker” and has the ability to recall incredible amounts of detail from images seen for even the briefest of moments). After attending a boarding school for gifted children she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology and ultimately a doctorate in animal science. An aside: Her interest in animals (specifically cattle) is handled extremely well here. This is a woman whose life work has centered on the design and operation of slaughterhouses, a potentially explosive subject when dealing with someone as otherwise sympathetic as Ms. Grandin. But the film does an excellent job conveying Grandin's notion that respect for animals and their quality of life does not and should not to be anathema to the meat industry (As per Ms. Grandin, “Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be.”)?
Director Mick Jackson uses playful visual and auditory cues to bring us inside Temple’s world. The film is never heavy-handed and even in its darkest moments finds an unusual, quirky way to cut the tension inherent in the subject matter. It keeps you just slightly off-balance at all times, well in keeping with its main subject. The same can be said of Claire Danes’ performance as Grandin. She manages to be both likable and emotionally resonant, quite the achievement when playing a woman who readily acknowledges that emotional issues and personal relationships are not a primary concern of hers. If, on occasion, the film falls back on some standard generic tropes -- when we see her wince at the touch of her mother, for example -- we wait in anticipation for her to overcome these “challenges." To the film’s credit, when she finally does, it is dramatized in ways that are more subtle than expected. And that’s true of the film as a whole: It has every opportunity to hit us over the head with the power of its story -- and it is a remarkably powerful one -- but it never does.