After our mental health at the movies podcast, we promised to watched the Temple Grandin film. We’ve now done that! And we enjoyed it mightily.
And thanks to a brilliant performance from Claire Danes, the HBO TV film is one of the best modern texts openly depicting neurodevelopmental conditions.
Temple Grandin—Seeing in Pictures for an Important Film
The timeline for the film is a bit unusual, cutting back various years at certain moments. Claire Danes represents Temple Grandin at various ages, from 15 in 1962 to 34 in 1981.
And the film begins with Grandin, as a teenager, visiting her aunt and uncle on a ranch.
An autistic savant, she has high functioning autism (although, these days, the “high functioning” aspect is not preferred for use). She’s mighty intelligent, but prone to communication issues, panic attacks, and sudden temper tantrums.
Grandin doesn’t think with words, they’re secondary for her. She processes the world around her in pictures.
The film regularly depicts this as an analytical process, enabling Grandin to solve many issues around her with creative technology.
During the visit to the ranch, she sees cows being put into a squeeze chute to calm them down. Later, she has a panic attack and uses the chute to soothe herself.
When she’s admitted to Franklin Pierce College, the often debilitating sensory overload issues she struggles with continue on.
She’s also bullied by her classmates for her autistic speech patterns, unmodulated voice, and eccentric behaviour.
That includes building a squeeze box for herself to control panic attacks. But her roommate sees it and believes Grandin to be indulging in sexual deviancy, leading to confusion with the university’s regulators.
Numerous scenes play on this cleverly, helping viewers understand Grandin’s requirements for the box and why it would lead to a misunderstanding with other people, which makes for great absurdist humour.
Then the film moves around to detailing Grandin’s upbringing, taking time to focus on the relationship with her mother Eustacia Cutler (played by Julia Ormond very well).
Just to point out, Cutler is into her 90s now and also writes on autism regularly. She also provides regular talks at conventions.
Time is spent briefly considering the refrigerator mother theory (Bettelheim’s theory of autism), a now discredited psychological concept from the ’50s.
Back then, infant schizophrenics led to a lifetime of institutionalisation.
Grandin’s mother rejected this outcome and fought for her daughter to lead as normal a life as possible. She was determined to enrol her daughter through standard education.
The big turning point in Grandin’s life turned out to be a former NASA employee.
That was Dr. William Carlock (played by David Strathairn), who proved beyond essential during those crucial years.
He was instrumental in helping the young Grandin get to grips with the world, gain some self-confidence, and prosper.
Incidentally, there’s a lovely comment on that YouTube video stating:
“This shows how important teachers truly are. As Mr. Miyagi once said, ‘There are no bad students, only bad teachers.'”
Kudos on the Mr. Miyagi nod, too!
What follows is more of her development during formative years, flourishing despite her issues, and overcoming many terrible social boundaries.
That included quite appalling sexism (right-wing viewers will have a tiff about gender politics and “the woke” there) and people around her just unable to comprehend Grandin’s idiosyncratic behaviour.
We nod here to the excellent Christine Chubbuck film in 2016, with Rebecca Hall’s superbly nuanced performance.
Unfortunately for Chubbuck, whose behaviour exhibited signs of autism such as social awkwardness, the advanced support wasn’t there for her. She visited many therapists in her life, but never received a formal diagnosis. For anything.
The same goes for William James Sidis. He was a child prodigy in the early 20th century who, due to his struggles with social awkwardness, rejected a shot at fame and fortune to live in solitude.
All three have been described as extremely intelligent (Sidis, his sister claimed, scored the highest IQ in history). But only one received proper support for a neurodevelopment disorder.
Grandin had the key figures of her mother and Dr. Carlock guiding her towards a bright future.
In this instance, she was able to become a successful animal behaviourist. Grandin has constructed livestock control methods that provide cows with a much more peaceful existence.
That was, in fact, the thesis she worked on whilst studying.
Later in the film (1975 on the timeline), despite Grandin’s graduation success, there’s a reminder of what she’s up against dealing with.
As Grandin has confirmed, the film accurately portrays her mercurial behaviour.
Now 74, she’s got a handle on how to control many of her issues. So she’s not as prone to sudden outbursts.
But in her younger years, it remained a debilitating struggle for her.
She’s quite the astonishing lady. And was rightly listed as one of the top 100 most influential people in the world in 2010 by Time magazine.
And we think the film’s real triumph is to take a topic like this, run it on primetime TV, and have it so accessible for audiences.
All without succumbing to the “oddball illness of the week” type of clichés.
It manages all of that on the strength of Danes’ brilliance, whilst adding in absurdist humour to help take the edge off peculiar, and potentially confusing, situations.
That and how Danes makes Grandin an immensely likeable person are the key winners for the film.
The Temple Grandin Film Production
The idea for the film was sparked by talent agent Emily Gerson Saines, also a co-founder of the non-profit Autism Coalition for Research and Education.
When her two year old son was diagnosed as autistic, she found Grandin’s story a source of immense inspiration.
Pre-production began in 2008, with Grandin granting permission for the film. And having considerable involvement in the project.
For example, an early draft of the script included Grandin having a romantic liaison. However, the real Grandin was highly opposed to that and ordered it out of the script. She hasn’t had romantic relationships.
Director Mick Jackson wanted Claire Danes as the lead right from the off.
At the time, Danes was bored with many of the roles she was being offered. She commented her job in most scripts was to “become gaga over a man”. So she jumped at the opportunity for a serious role.
She met with Grandin before filming began and received a hug after their meeting, which Danes realised was validation to take the role.
Danes has since starred in the Homeland series and was just as brilliant in that.
The film was shot in Austin, Texas. Grandin was occasionally on the set to oversee the production and was very complimentary towards Danes. She said of watching her performance:
“It was like like going back in a weird time machine to the ’60s.”
And of course this was a TV film, so it didn’t receive a cinematic release. Instead launching on America’s HBO network.
It met with considerable critical acclaim and won many awards, including five Primetime Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe.
Danes also received sweeping acclaim for her performance and took home a Screen Actors Guild gong for her efforts.