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Every Door is an Opportunity: An Advance Review of HBO's Breathtaking Film "Temple Grandin"

Made-for-TV movies often get a bad rap. They're sometimes looked at as being saccharine stories of people overcoming adversity, focusing on individuals who bravely overcome diseases, disabilities, or gut-wrenching issues.

But every now and then, especially in the hands of HBO, a telepic comes along that is just as good as--if not better than--feature films shown in cinemas, projects that change your perception of the world around you, make you question some hard truths, and make you a better person just by dint of watching them.

One such project is HBO's superlative and imaginative film, Temple Grandin, which airs this Saturday night on the pay cabler.

Focusing on the courageous spirit and inquisitive mind of inventor, author, advocate, and teacher Temple Grandin, the film unfolds in a nonlinear fashion to reconstruct the struggles of autistic Grandin from her childhood as a mute four-year-old girl to her emergence as a brilliant scientific mind, one who revolutionized the cattle industry in America and who offered us a whole new way of understanding the world, its animals, and ourselves.

Written by Christopher Monger and Merritt Johnson and directed by Mick Jackson (Live from Baghdad), Temple Grandin stars Claire Danes (Stage Beauty) as the incomparable Grandin, depicting Temple from her early teenage years in the 1960s to her adulthood in the 1980s. Grandin is unlike anyone you will ever encounter: brilliant and inquisitive, she experiences the world as prey animals do, thinking in images rather than words. It's a gift that she uses to change the way that cattle are treated in the United States and carves out a life for herself that is far from less but so much more.

Danes' staggeringly powerful performance isn't an imitation of the unique Grandin. In the hands of a lesser actor, this turn could be nothing more than inaccurate mimicry; but Danes doesn't so much play Grandin as channel her. It's a breathtaking performance that immediately erases all traces of the actor. Danes transforms herself not just in looks (hairstyle, false teeth) but in every aspect of her being, recreating the stance, voice, and intensity of Grandin herself. (You can read my interview with Danes, Grandin, Jackson, and executive producer Emily Gerson Saines at the Daily Beast tomorrow.)

The result is a virtuoso performance that encapsulates the essence of the film's subject in a way that biopics always hope to achieve but so rarely do. While Emmy nominations are a long ways off, one can only hope that the voters recognize Danes' gifted performance here.

The rest of the cast is equally top-notch. Julia Ormond turns in a stirring and understated performance as Temple's long-suffering mother Eustacia Cutler, a woman who believed so much in her daughter that she pushed her to achieve greater and greater things, turning her back on a doctor's recommendation that Temple be institutionalized as a child. Catherine O'Hara plays Temple's aunt Ann, a supportive and encouraging influence in Temple's life who owns a cattle ranch where Temple spends a formative summer. Gone are any traces of O'Hara's innate comedic timing; her Ann is sensitive, empathetic, and soulful. David Strathairn appears as Temple's high school science teacher Dr. Carlock, a man who feeds Temple's insatiable scientific curiosity and convinces her that she can do anything she sets her mind to achieve.

Whereas many stories would focus on Grandin's autism as an adversity to be overcome, Temple Grandin recognizes that her neurological condition isn't a liability but a gift. Grandin sees the world in pictures, utilizing a photographic memory that enables her to recall thousands of objects, instantly memorize the pages of a French textbook, or run complicated schematics and blueprints through her head.

Director Mick Jackson brings her unique visual thinking ability to life in a series of sequences that showcase the inimitable way of thinking. Temple's ability to think in pictures is displayed by some funny visual puns (roosters, eels, etc.) and by her ability to see the patterns and movement of everything from a swinging farm gate to the cows on Ann's farm. A series of doors, both literal and metaphorical, open up for Temple and she sets out to work with animals, to improve their lives and their deaths.

I don't want to give too much away about this gripping and emotional journey, but I will say that Grandin's story reminds us of the preciousness of every moment. Never is this more clearly seen or keenly felt than here in Temple Grandin. People with autism process emotion in different ways than the rest of us; most find it uncomfortable to physically express a sense of connection in ways that we take for granted: a hug or an embrace. In the film, that feeling is captured beautifully by a scene at Carlock’s funeral, in which Temple almost shares an embrace with her mother. It’s a stolen moment, a near collision that sums up the vast chasm between Temple and those who love her.

Ultimately, Temple Grandin is the story of an individual blessed with an ability that few of us can understand who strives to break free to become not something resembling normal but something truly extraordinary. It's a beautiful story brought to live vividly with this remarkable production, a heartfelt gift to Temple Grandin herself and to all of us who watch.

Temple Grandin airs Saturday evening at 8 pm ET/PT on HBO.


Anonymous said…
In just one word, WOW! I can't wait to see this movie.

Henley said…
This looks amazing and I love Claire Danes so I am definitely tuning in. Thank you for the thoughtful and interesting review!
Remy said…
I'm glad to hear that it turned out well. Parts of the movie were filmed on my college campus last year, and a lot of people were hesitant when they learned Claire Danes was taking the lead role. I'm excited to see it. Thanks for the review!
Adelaide Dupont said…
Carlock is dead?

This must have happened after the 1980s.

Great stuff and great review.

I also like the non-linear fashion.

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