Are you a person who clamors for films that tackle both autism and cattle handling? Well, then, you are an unusual individual. The beauty of HBO’s biopic Temple Grandin, however, is that it makes the title character’s autism — and the unique insight it gave her into livestock psychology — relatable to anyone with a heart, and fascinating to anyone with a brain. The fact that it does so with such a singular story only makes the movie that much greater.
The well-plotted script does what so many biographical movies fail to do: put us right inside the mind of its subject. In this case, that’s Temple Grandin (Claire Danes), who was diagnosed with autism as a child in the 1950s but blew past a lifetime full of unsympathetic teachers and classmates to earn a Ph.D. in animal science, revolutionize farm systems, and become an outspoken expert on autism itself. Director Mick Jackson uses a variety of techniques — onscreen graphics, quick cuts, fantastical flashes, and heightened sound effects — to give viewers a sense of what it feels like to be autistic. As Temple explains, she ”thinks in pictures.” She remembers everything she sees. Her brain is a crowded and overwhelming place. Because we’re given visual glimpses of how she thinks, we begin to understand cows and horses the way Temple does — and the next thing you know, we’re entranced by her design for an elaborate, and more humane, cow-washing system. (To be clear, we are not generally very interested in bovine cleansing.)
This thoughtful treatment also helps a severely deglammed Danes — all gawky posturing, close-cropped curls, and shouty speech cadences — transcend a standard awards-bait performance. She in turn gets a nice boost from a strong but understated supporting cast: Julia Ormond as Temple’s worn-out mother, Catherine O’Hara as an understanding aunt, and the always reliable David Strathairn as the science teacher everyone wishes they had.
Grandin also sneaks in some social commentary, slyly presenting a harsh take on the ’50s and ’60s, a pre?Rain Man time when autism was so misunderstood that doctors blamed it on maternal neglect and suggested lifelong institutionalization. Sexism, too, threatens to set Temple back in more insidious ways, especially once she enters the cowboy territory of farm life. If you think things were already hard for women in the ’60s, then imagine what it was like for a woman who was more interested in telling men how to run their stockyards than in making them coffee or flirting. Even bull testicles dumped on her windshield by a ranch boss do not deter Temple — in fact, they add to the power of her finely rendered story. A?