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Please Stand By

"Some dialogue is in Klingon, but there will be subtitles."

Fan fiction, the final frontier. This is the voyage of Wendy Welcott. Her three-day mission: to deliver a 500-page screenplay to Paramount Studios... to seek out the $100,000 first prize in a Star Trek writing contest... to boldly tell a story that no one has told before!

Wendy (Dakota Fanning) is a high-functioning autistic young woman living in a group home in San Francisco. Though she has a job in a non-sheltered environment, the Cinnabon store at the local mall, her disability is such that she still requires the structure and supervision the group home provides.

Like many autistic people, Wendy also has some very strong fixations–the strongest of which is Star Trek. It would not be too far off to say that she knows the Trek canon better than Gene Roddenberry or D.C. Fontana ever did. When Wendy hears that Paramount is running a screenwriting contest for Trek fans, with a first prize of $100,000, she cooks up The Many and the Few, a 500-page epic that has everything a Trekkie could ask for: Kirk, Spock, Worf, Deep Space Nine, time travel, tribbles, you name it, it's probably in there somewhere. To judge by the first line of dialogue in the script, it's an ambitious tale.

"'Captain's log, final entry. The Enterprise is presumed lost. Spock and I are the only survivors.'"

Wendy's sister Audrey (Alice Eve), married and the mother of a newborn daughter, is settling their mother's estate and selling the family home. Wendy, who is proud of her ability to hold a job and convinced that she will win the script contest, wants to leave the group home and move in with Audrey. When both Audrey and Scottie (Toni Colette), the group home manager, tell her this is not possible–Audrey quite reasonably does not want to try to care for a newborn and supervise an autistic adult at the same time–Wendy has something of a meltdown.


When Wendy comes out of her funk, it's late on Saturday and the post office is closed. There won't be any mail service until Tuesday because Monday is a holiday–Presidents' Day, to be precise–and the script must arrive at Paramount no later than Tuesday. Seeing no other option, Wendy sneaks out of the group home early Sunday morning, accompanied by the home's pet dog Pete, and sets off for Los Angeles to deliver her script. Needless to say, Wendy's impairment and lack of knowledge about the world outside the group home make this a complicated task. She is, however, very intelligent and imaginative, and her ability to work around the obstacles in her path in unexpected ways keeps the story going–and complicates the efforts of Scottie and Audrey to locate her and bring her back to the safety of the group home.

The basic premise of Please Stand By is a familiar one, and by about halfway through Wendy's quest, you'll probably be able to guess how it ends. What makes it something more than ordinary is its protagonist. The script by Michael Golcamo portrays autism realistically, and manages the delicate task of finding humor in Wendy's actions without mocking her disability. Dakota Fanning clearly did her homework as an actress, because her performance perfectly captures the awkwardly-distant affect and aversion to physical contact that autistic people often have.

Quotes

"It's about two old friends who are separated. And one of them, Spock, is a Vulcan. He discovers how to have a sense of humor. He makes a special study of the anatomy of jokes which were a part of old, or primitive, Vulcan culture. He relates different parts of a joke to different facial expressions according to old holographic archives, and he figures out a scientific equation for a sense of humor."

"Oh, I wish my grandson could meet you. He would so get whatever it is you're talking about."

"Do you know how hard it is to write something? All the thinking and planning and re-writing of everything you already wrote for somebody else to read? All the nights and days spent thinking? Thinking about the right words to say, thinking about the best way to say them? Because the story you wanna tell means so much to you?"

Other sensor readings

Before we go any further, let's deal with the elephant in the transporter room: why does the contest entry have to be a hard copy? Why can't Wendy just email it to Paramount? If it has to be a hard copy, why not send it FedEx or DHL or UPS? The reason is, of course, that if an alternate delivery method was available, we wouldn't have much of a story.

As you've probably already surmised, there are Trek Easter eggs throughout the film, Scottie's name being the most prominent. In an early scene in the mall, two workers from another store have nametags using the Trek main title font. While writing, Wendy imagines Kirk and Spock wearing the pressure suits from "The Tholian Web," and that episode is seen playing on a TV screen in the background of one brief shot. The title of her screenplay is a reference to The Wrath of Kahn. On a more "meta" level, Alice Eve, who plays Audrey, also played Carol Marcus in Star Trek: Into Darkness.There are probably others I didn't catch.

There are some interesting non-Trek cameos as well. Marla Gibbs, who played Florence the maid in the popular '70s sitcom The Jeffersons, appears as an elderly lady who gives Wendy a ride on her nursing home's bus. Laura Innes, best known for her leading roles in ER and The Event, has a scene as a bus station ticket clerk. Patton Oswalt has a short but significant part as a police officer who gains Wendy's confidence by addressing her in fluent Klingon–with subtitles!

All of Wendy's housemates at the group home were played by the residents of a real group home where the story was filmed.

One of the most amusing conversations in the story is one between Scottie, who can't tell Star Trek from Star Wars or Star Search, and her teenage son, who's fully conversant with the Trek universe and thinks the plot of Wendy's script is fantastic.

At one point, Wendy loses some pages of her script. She fishes some paper out of a recycling bin and begins hand-writing replacement pages from memory. This is not unrealistic. About 10% of autistic people have what is called "savant syndrome," possessing an extraordinary mental skill such as a photographic memory, and Wendy is clearly one of them. Another example of such a savant is the character of Raymond, played by Dustin Hoffman, in the film Rain Man.

There is a short sequence where Audrey is watching home videos from her childhood. The young actress playing Wendy in the video, Farrah Mackenzie, does an absolutely perfect portrayal of an autistic child's self-stimulating behavior.

If I remember correctly, the rule of thumb is that one script page equals forty-five seconds to a minute of screen time. This means that The Many and the Few would have a running time somewhere between six hours and fifteen minutes and eight hours and twenty minutes.

If you are interested in learning more about autism, the book Nobody Nowhere: The Extraordinary Autobiography of an Autistic Girl by Donna Williams would be a good starting point.

Conclusion

Though predictable, Please Stand By is sweet, gentle, and decent; it's well worth your time. 350 out of 400 script pages.
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Baby M is a lifelong Trekkie, but has never learned Klingon.