Based on the life of the autistic woman who revolutionized slaughterhouses across North America, Temple Grandin urges empathy rather than sympathy. It makes this case by taking Grandin’s view, as she saw such facilities from the perspective of the cattle rather than their handlers, and designed “low stress” handling methods. From here the argument expands, seeing life in a modern, busy world from the perspective of autistic people.
The film introduces the parallel when Temple (Claire Danes) discovers it, while visiting her aunt’s Arizona cattle ranch during the summer before she enters college. There she encounters the contraption that the ranchers use to “gentle” the cows as they get their shots, and finds it also helps soothe her own anxiety. Suffering from crippling panic attacks and social awkwardness, Temple opens herself up to new experiences on the ranch, and soon becomes reliant on using the machine, which “squeezes” her on both sides while holding her head steady. When Temple’s mother (Julia Ormond) arrives at the end of the summer to retrieve her and sees the clanking, medieval-appearing squeezing device, she’s appropriately concerned. “I know it looks horrible,” her aunt (Catherine O’Hara) admits, “but it helps her.”
And Temple needs all the help she can get. The film puts us into the confusion that Temple feels by cutting to black and white stills that approximate those images that fill her mind. She explains to everyone she meets, “I think in pictures, and I connect them,” and the film walks the audience through that process quite literally: automatic sliding doors make her see guillotines, and sudden movements and loud noises spook her, much like the cows are spooked.
Once she arrives at college, Temple is predictably ridiculed and ostracized for being a “retard,” even though she’s plainly intelligent and sensitive. She’s unable to handle overstimulation or think in abstractions, and a college education is full of both. In order to cope, in her dorm room she constructs a “squeeze machine” of her own that “feels like a hug,” to compensate for not being able to make physical human contact whatsoever — not even with her mother. The school authorities respond without sympathy, swiftly taking her machine away, fearing it gives her sexual pleasure.
In tracking Temple’s travails, the first half of the film feels a lot like others about special needs children. She’s subjected to the usual panicked discussions with dismissive doctors, heartless administrators, and the lone supportive mentor (in this case, David Strathairn) who believes in her genius. Even her mother, a Harvard graduate, slips into cliché, as she succumbs to the years of pressure at trying to make Temple more “normal” and less of “a freak.”
But even this standard plotting can’t repress Danes’ fearless, captivating, and intimate performance. Hers has always been an expressive face, her figure lithe and performances most often understated. Transformed here into a gawky, convincing autistic individual, she is mesmerizing. Danes reportedly spent months reviewing old footage of Grandin and met with her (she’s currently teaching animal science at Colorado State University), in order to learn her mannerisms.
Her performance subtly reveals the changes in Temple, as she navigates both ’70s sexism and that era’s ignorance and intolerance of anyone with special needs. Temple’s insights into cattle ranching have everything to do with her own experiences, and eventually she’s able to convince the right people (men) that her ideas will save them money. By redesigning slaughterhouses to keep the cows calm rather than merely contained, fewer handlers are needed and fewer bovine casualties occur. More importantly to Temple, cattle are treated with at least some measure of respect. “Nature is cruel,” she explains, “but we don’t have to be.”
As her ability to thrive in the cruel world strengthens, Temple’s story is undeniably inspirational. From the moment she strides onscreen, she takes up the whole room, literally and figuratively. The film opens using a famous optical illusion, an Ames Room, in which the perspective is manipulated to distort the size of objects within it. So when Temple addresses the camera from one side, she appears tiny, and when she walks to the other side, she appears gigantic. The metaphor is easy: the film simply asks us to reconsider how we view those with autism, and by the end of the film, it’s worked.