For a film whose title directly quotes everyone’s favorite vulcan, Spock, and is about a 20-something girl who hopes to win big in a Star Trek-fanfiction contest, Please Stand By‘s exclusively arthouse run probably means it will draw crowds more interested in the autism hook than the Trekkie love. You see, Please Stand By’s protagonist is the robotically affected Wendy (Dakota Fanning), a young woman on the spectrum. Like many people on the spectrum, she’s apt to watch and rewatch just one thing, and perhaps because she sees herself in the half-vulcan, half-human Spock, with limited means to express emotions himself, she’s chosen to devote her obsessive attention to the Star Trek fandom.
So invested is Wendy in the inhabitants of the USS Enterprise that her Cinnabon coworker Nemo (Tony Revolori) sells off her talents, winning bets from other mall employees who don’t yet realize Wendy can answer literally any Star Trek question, no matter how obscure. But Nemo isn’t some opportunistic Tom Sawyer. He genuinely likes Wendy. He even creates a mixtape for her, an obvious attempt at a relationship that Wendy, with her difficulty in reading other people, isn’t quick to pick up on. But she makes good use of the mixtape. This is ultimately a road-trip movie, after all.
Wendy has written a 400-page script based on an all too on-the-nose premise (what if Spock created a scientific equation to understand humor?), which sets up the parallels between Wendy and Spock even more. But Wendy will miss the deadline if she sends it in by mail, so she decides to take a bus from Northern California to Los Angeles to hand it in, in-person. This is a larger battle than it seems, as Wendy is far enough on the spectrum that she hasn’t experienced much autonomy in her life. By rules of her group home, run by a woman named Scotty (played by the talented but underused Toni Collette), Wendy has never crossed Market Street, let alone left the city. But, as her script says, “Captain, there is only one logical direction in which to go: forward.”
Please Stand By is based on the play by Michael Golamco, who translates it here for screen. Golamco’s interest seems focused more on portraying the nuances of autism than delivering a feature-length film. I have a parent on the spectrum, and the representation seems pretty spot on—from Wendy’s sensory issues (she’s not a fan of hugs) to her need for order and structure (she has the same sweater in seven different colors that she alternates depending on the day of the week).
The most emotional scenes, however, come by way of interactions with her older sister Audrey (Alice Eve). Audrey is in a tough spot. She loves her sister dearly (which we learn via the all-to-worn device of a teary Audrey watching home videos of her and her sister learning to play the piano), but as she follows her own neurotypical path (marriage, buying a home), she has a hard time remaining caretaker to Wendy. She’s obviously conflicted about placing Wendy in a group home, and her trepidation is all too obvious when she comes to visit. As she begins to explain her impending move (presumably further away), Wendy, not realizing in Audrey’s tone that what her sister is saying might be important, interrupts and excitedly starts talking about her Star Trek script. The moment is all too real for anyone who knows someone on the spectrum. Wendy doesn’t take it personally and instead listens as Wendy describes the contest. Eve is perpetually on the verge of tears in this film, but this is the one scene where the emotional punch achieves everything it intends, without feeling gratuitous.
Dakota Fanning in Please Stand By (Still from Magnolia Films trailer)
Unfortunately, the rest of the film is rather predictable. Wendy faces obstacle after obstacle in her journey to L.A., with some minor attempts at humor (she gets kicked off a Greyhound bus when her chihuahua chooses to relieve himself in the middle of the aisle). A lot of the journey seems rather implausible, not because Wendy is learning to function on her own, but because, come on, how likely is it to get kicked off a bus, get in a car accident, escape a hospital, and meet a Klingon-speaking police officer (Patton Oswalt) all in one day?
There are also scenes that feel entirely unnatural, despite pretty solid acting across the board. More than one scene begins with a “So as I was saying…” kind of line, as when Audrey and Scottie first interact. It’s a lazy attempt to drop viewers in the middle of a conversation to quickly explain plot points (in this case, that Audrey isn’t as optimistic about Wendy’s progress as Scotty is—she still remembers Wendy’s violent tantrums from childhood).
But despite the script’s imperfections, Please Stand By is harmless, enjoyable film that loves the kind of characters that are often overlooked by Hollywood (those on the spectrums, those at the extremes of fandom). It’s about expressing a tiny bit of humanity for our unsung voyagers. By the end it almost doesn’t matter whether Wendy wins or loses the contest, because her personal transformation in coping better with these odd humans, as her role model Spock had to learn to do, translates well on screen. We end with the sense that this is only the beginning for Wendy, as she’s finally grasped a bit of autonomy. It’s hard not to root for her. May she boldly go where she’s never gone before.