Monday, September 20, 2010

HBO Movie: Temple Grandin

When Temple Grandin cleaned up at the Emmys a few weeks ago, I was intrigued about Claire Danes' biopic.  While I haven't seen all the other nominees in the categories they won, this is one of the best movies I've seen this year.  There aren't many movies where you just sit there when the credits start playing, thinking about what you've just seen and most of those include a tragic death or world-saving battle.  So it was all the more remarkable when it happened at the end of a movie about a still-living autistic woman who redesigned slaughter houses.   Claire Danes plays Grandin, from her early college days through graduate school in the late 1960s and 1970s.  She was diagnosed with autism as a toddler when she hadn't spoken by age 4, and her mother (played by Emmy winner Julia Ormond) fought like crazy to keep her daughter around and prevent her from losing out on a "normal life" - her mantra is something like "different, but not less". 
Claire Danes with the real Temple Grandin
We meet Grandin when she's arrived for the summer at her aunt's cattle ranch before going on to college (an idea that scares the crap out of her because there are so many people she doesn't understand and who don't understand her).  Catherine O'Hara is her understanding aunt who tries to help her figure out how to approach college.  One day when they're inoculating the cattle, Temple see this machine that holds the cattle still, calming them before their shot.  She realizes this could work for her too - the calming effect of a hug without actually having to touch another person.  When she arrives at college, with her own "hug machine", the university says no way (they think it has something to do with sex) until she does a scientific study showing that it helps most people feel calm, not just her. 
This sets her on a path of scientific inquiry - because she "sees in pictures" abstract thought is something really difficult (like learning a language or creative writing).  But the absolutes of science appeal to her nature and disposition, particularly because of the autism.  She continues after college at the University of Arizona studying animal husbandry and life sciences.  She is in a stockyard when she starts wondering why some cattle moo louder than others, and starts studying their behavior.  Because she can relate images together, she pieces together reasons for different cattle behavior, like moving in curves and not wanting to walk downhill.  She can relate to what scares them because she's particularly sensitive to sights, sounds, and textures.  She tricks her way into the stockyard for her masters thesis, and when she graduates she's asked to re-design a cattle "dip" (where they dip the cattle in a debugging liquid).  The old designs had a high mortality rate (from drowning) and would take more time and more people to run them than the design Temple creates which plays to cattle's own behaviors.  She finds a way to make cattle willing to enter the dip because they feel safe.  Ultimately, she figures out how to do the same for slaughterhouses, creating humane ways to herd the cattle right up until the moment they die.  Throughout all her schooling, her high school science teacher, David Strathairn, supports her vision, describing every step of her journey as "another door to walk through".  Visualizing walking through a door helps Temple actually do the next step in her career. 
The movie helps us get into the mind of Temple by showing some of the constant pictures she sees, and how they might relate.  It does a good job explaining her place on the autistic spectrum without having lots and lots of monologue.  She's actually quite aware of her own issues with the world, which is where the movie comes to an end - when she realizes she's a terrific candidate to educate the world about what it means to live with autism.  I'm not doing the movie justice, but you'll have to take my word that it's not cheesy, it's not cliched, it doesn't oversimplify her life too much, and yet, it still tugs on your heartstrings and gives your outlook on life a boost.  5 of 5 stars/lambs

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