May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
January 19, 2011
This biopic covers the life of acclaimed cattle management genius Temple Grandin, who embraced her autism on its own terms and over time discovered how to translate her unconventional perspective on the world into startlingly insightful glimpses into animal behavior. Grandin came of age in the 50s, when autism was still considered the crippling emotional fallout of maternal neglect, and the film documents the social isolation caused by young Temple’s way of being. It also brilliantly documents the manic experience of flashing light, sudden motion, and unbearable noises that often overwhelmed her alert senses. These experiences translate oddly well to cinema. Danes’ incredibly performance as Grandin somehow captures both the frustrated dismay and growing self-awareness of someone discovering the nuances of their differences from other people. For Grandin, it never seemed to be a question of normal vs. whatever she is, but a personal struggle towards a kind of efficacy that would let her be known, heard, and understood by others. The loud, monotone, awkward accuracy of Danes’ performance grants the film its dignity as a glimpse into this condition that has for so many years painted children into the corner of our educational and social system.
The story of Temple Grandin, Animal Science PhD, pivots on the squeeze machine she developed after contemplating the calmness of cattle in a squeeze chute. This feeling of being hugged, the kind of physical contact that autism often resists, quickly became her only real zone of safety from sensory or social overload. Somewhere along the way, Temple realizes that her mind does work quite differently, but in a very specific way. As a result, she embarks on a study that happens to interpret the behaviors of cattle more effectively than the high-dollar ranching and slaughterhouse industries ever have been able to. Inexplicable habits of cattle that had bugged these industries for decades turned out to be immediately apparent to Grandin. A smear of paint, the flap of clothing hanging on a rail, a lose strip of plastic sheeting in a window, drastic changes in lighting. These are little things people don’t generally notice, but they can hold up a herd of cattle for hours, and Grandin’s similar sensitivity to these sensory details led her to humanely revamp the way we handle large animals in these contexts. In a surprisingly un-cheesy way, the film captures these flashes of intuition in animated sweeps of blueprinted designs, and her attempts to gain access to this male-dominated world with gentle comedy.
Reading the books Grandin has written on animal behavior is a rewarding experience, not simply because of the information one gleans about how animals think, but because we catch a glimpse of an incredible mind observing and filtering a form of sensory data most of us simply don’t have access to. At the end of Temple Grandin, there is the obligatory scene in which Grandin gives an impromptu speech about autism before a cheering crowd. But it isn’t cliché at all. It is awesome, humbling, and far more universal in scope than the focus on autism would suggest. Yes, the film is about Grandin’s incredible tenacity and the curious way she learned how to interface with the world. But it also questions the way we consider and understand the world, the instinctive ways we communicate with each other, and the little box we tend to put our human brains into. I do not think it patronizes Grandin’s squeeze box at all to file it away as an uncanny image of dismay and isolation, of the gift of human intimacy. And the many occurrences in which people step up and provide the space within which Grandin finds her footing in the world are arresting images of true compassion for those we have a hard time understanding. The story of Temple Grandin really is the story of modern autism. But it is also, somehow, about compassion, curiosity, and what it takes to be humane.