By Don Simpson | February 6, 2010
Director: Mick Jackson
Writer(s): Christopher Monger, Merritt Johnson (teleplay), Temple Grandin, Margaret Scarciano (book “Emergence”) Temple Grandin (book “Thinking in Pictures”)
Starring: Claire Danes, David Strathairn, Catherine O’Hara, Julia Ormond
We are introduced to Temple Grandin (Clare Danes) as abruptly and uncomfortably as Temple would introduce herself – with Danes’ face in close-up revealing her social awkwardness and uncontrollable excitement as she says “Hello, I’m Temple Grandin!” We are quickly transported back to a seminal period in Temple’s childhood, the summer she spent on her Aunt Ann’s (Catherine O’Hara) cattle ranch between high school and college. This was Temple’s first immersion into the livestock industry and it was also when she truly began to gain control of her autism, thanks in part to an invention of hers called the “hug machine.”
Told partly in flashbacks, we also spend a good quantity of time with Temple in the Hampshire Country School – boarding school for gifted children. This is where Temple meets Professor Carlock (David Strathairn), the ex-NASA science teacher at the boarding school who is the first to recognize Temple’s abilities and mentor her. Carlock is able to show to Temple how she is different from others (she thinks purely in pictures) and how she can use those differences to her advantage.
Thanks to the confidence engrained in Temple by Carlock and her experiences on her Aunt Ann’s ranch, Temple follows through with going to Franklin Pierce College where she graduates with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She is quickly engulfed into the world of academia (earning a master’s degree in animal science from Arizona State University and a Ph.D. in animal science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and livestock. Temple begins designing more humane ways to handle livestock, finding ways to quell animals’ fears as they are ushered to their slaughter. (Temple Grandin is currently a Doctor of Animal Science at Colorado State University; she has also written several bestselling books on autism and livestock animal behavior.)
This is where the genius of Temple Grandin eludes me – I admit that her devices and techniques are much more humane than the previous practices of slaughterhouses; but they are still slaughterhouses and the livestock are still treated (and fed) very poorly during their time “living” on these ranches. There are more humane ways to raise and treat cows – for one: don’t treat them as livestock, treat them as living beings. (To quote The Smiths’ “Meat is Murder”: “Heifer whines could be human cries / Closer comes the screaming knife / This beautiful creature must die / …A death for no reason is murder.”) In my heavily biased opinion (I am a longtime vegetarian – Clare Danes is too), I think there are more important changes necessary to the future of the livestock industry than making cows more comfortable before they are slaughtered. For example: they could be fed healthier meals, given more space to exercise, and cleaner air to breathe. But I digress…
Also, by way of flashback, we learn that Temple did not speak until the age of four. Despite recommendations of institutionalizing Temple, her mother (Julia Ormond) never gave up hope. (Grandin is first to point out that her mother is the true hero in her story.) This is the strongest and most meaningful message within Temple Grandin – parents of autistic children should not give up hope! Sure, raising an autistic child can be a tremendous and frustrating challenge (I have not experienced this first-hand, but this seems to be the general consensus), but just because a child has autism does not mean that they are not talented or worthy of a normal life. Autistic children think and learn differently than other children, and that needs to be taken into consideration by parents, teachers and (most importantly) school districts. Society seems to want to institutionalize, or at least cast aside, anyone that does not fit into the norms established within our school systems rather than adapting to their individual needs.
Temple Grandin is an acting tour-de-force for Claire Danes as she convincingly portrays Temple from her early teens well into her post-graduate years – a time-span of at least 30 years. Danes’ speech patterning, movements, facial expressions and reactions are what really sell her as Temple. Most importantly, Danes is able to fully control her performance so that she never becomes the all too familiar Hollywood caricature of autism. Temple Gradin grants Danes the opportunity to prove that she is no longer just the uber-cute girl from My So Called Life. (Faithful SLSS readers may remember that I gave Danes a poor review for her flat and uninspired performance in last year’s Me and Orson Welles, but her performance as Temple redeems my opinion of her acting talents ten-fold.)
On a side note: within the last week, I watched (purely by coincidence) two films that seem to have some relevance to Temple Grandin – Food, Inc. and Grey Gardens. Food, Inc. focuses on what I consider to be the greater horrors of the livestock industry and its effects on the people eating the meat. By no means a vegetarian diatribe, Food, Inc. focuses on the human health benefits to treating livestock more humanely. (Food, Inc. really biased my view of what Temple Grandin has to say about Grandin’s animal activism.) Grey Gardens had a completely different effect on me. After watching Grey Gardens and Temple Grandin it is clear to me that cable television is able to make movies on par with Hollywood. Both films feature award-worthy acting performances (Grey Gardens garnered a ton of awards this last season; Danes is destined for an Emmy and Golden Globe next year) that rival anything that has been released on the silver screen of late; and both films brilliantly shed the stereotypes of the poor production values that “made for TV” movies are traditionally renowned for.