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Had “Temple Grandin” been a more typical film about one person’s perseverance in the face of difficulty, it still would have been inspiring and emotionally impactful. After all, this is, at its heart, an uplifting story about an autistic young woman who, with help and guidance, comes out of her shell to become a widely respected author, animal scientist and autism advocate.
This HBO Film, however, has two special ingredients that elevate it well beyond the ordinary: Claire Danes’ performance in the title role and Mick Jackson’s insistence as a director that viewers get a real sense of the way Temple Grandin’s mind works.
Danes gives an Emmy-worthy portrayal, at once credible and incredible. Credible in the sense that she captures the essence of this complicated, awkward, emotionally stunted but brilliant person. Incredible in that, because of Danes’ attention to small details, she finds the overarching humanity and passion in Grandin. In so doing, she makes Grandin a full-blooded character and not merely someone struggling with a difficult condition.
Grandin recoils from the touch of others. Based on her observation of cattle, she built a squeezing contraption that, when inside, calms her anxiety. But the film has wonderful moments, performed beautifully by Danes, when Grandin transcends these emotional barriers, like when she sings “When You Walk Through a Storm” at her graduation.
Jackson’s genius is his decision to give viewers a second perspective on Grandin’s life. He shows us how the world sees Grandin but also shows how Grandin sees the world. With black-and-white images, line drawings superimposed on video and sequences of pictures triggered by words and phrases, Jackson provides crucial insight into the character and, just as importantly, removes the shroud of mystery that surrounds autism.
Grandin, 62, is a full professor at Colorado State University. The film, based on actual events, focuses particularly on her life as a student at Hampshire Country School, a private boarding school where she was turned on to science, and Franklin Pierce College, also in New Hampshire, where she further developed her intellectual powers.
The film highlights the crucial support she got from her mother, Eustacia (Julia Ormond), who refused to consign her to an institution, from her Aunt Ann (Catherine O’Hara), who introduced her to the livestock industry, and from her science teacher, Dr. Carlock (David Strathairn), who recognized her great potential. The fine supporting cast further enhances the impact of this remarkable movie.
Airdate: 8-10 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 6 (HBO)
Production: A Ruby Films production and a Gerson Saines production in association with HBO Films
Cast: Claire Danes, Catherine O’Hara, Stephanie Faracy, Barry Tubb, Julia Ormond, David Strathairn, Steve Shearer, Richard Dillard, Jenna Hughes
Executive producers: Emily Gerson Saines, Gil Bellows, Anthony Edwards, Dante Di Loreto, Paul Lister, Alison Owen
Producer: Scott Ferguson
Director: Mick Jackson
Screenwriters: Christopher Monger, William Merritt Johnson
Based on books by: Temple Grandin and Margaret Scariano; and Temple Grandin
Director of photography: Ivan Strasburg
Production designer: Richard Hoover
Editor: Leo Trombetta
Music: Alex Wurman
Set decorator: Gabriella Villareal
Casting: David Rubin, Richard Hicks
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