In the world of quality cable television, HBO is often known for their series, presenting well crafted, smartly written, and expertly acted programs. What may be less known to those of us without cable television, are their “made-for-tv movies.” I know that because I don’t have cable, my knowledge of HBO consists mostly of what is written about by the various blogs I follow, and what my friends are recommending to me.
I actually first heard about Temple Grandin, and the HBO film about her life, through NPR’s Fresh Air. The film was reviewed, several interviews with the real life Grandin were played, and I was immediately interested in seeking this film out.
Temple Grandin presents the life of the title character, a real life proponent for the acceptance and understanding of autism, as well as an innovator in the livestock world. We see Grandin experience life as a post-high school, pre-college woman, still often misunderstood by the people around her, due to the often misdiagnosis and overall ignorance toward autism.
During one fateful summer visit to her aunt and uncle’s farm, she quickly finds her calling in the form of the cattle that her family keep. Temple Grandin sees the world, and thinks, in pictures, and uses that to formulate how to better help the cattle who are often terrified by the smallest things in their lives, from loose chains, to unexpected movements. She connects how her autism affects her abilities to interact with humans, to how the cattle behave under duress.
The film takes us through a series of important events in Grandin’s life, from college, to her inevitable career in the cattle industry. We see her have incredible breakthroughs in her classes, and in the field, which inevitably lead those around her to realize just how brilliant she is, and how she will change their lives. The film also avoids being burdened with any particularly grander notions about tearing down peoples thoughts on autism, and any controversial baggage that may come with that term. It presents her story, how those around her treated her, and how she changed the world around her.
What really sets Temple Grandin apart from other, more traditional biopics is the fact that the filmmakers really try and present her perspective through less than ordinary means. Through the use of oppressive sound effects, just as Grandin experiences them, quick cuts during moments of claustrophobia, and animated sequences (using actual illustrations from the real Temple Grandin), the audience quickly learns to sympathize with the title character’s autism, and how she copes with it.
If there was anything to complain about, it’d be simply the constraints that come along with attempting to produce an extensive piece of work, while also being limited by the usual two hour running time. Just as we begin to become invested in a particular project that Temple has undertaken, it is quickly solved and we move onto yet another life changing moment. I began to think the film was setting up some bigger project, that would be the culmination of the previous ones, only to realize that this is not what the filmmakers intended. I suppose that my expectations are only a result of past experiences with biopics, which is itself, a simple storytelling technique, that distorts a person’s real life. We want our stories to follow a traditional template, and it is a bold decision to do away with that in Temple Grandin. I’d imagine that because Grandin is still alive, trying to make certain events more important that others, might prove a mistake when her life can be viewed as a whole.
Overall, the film presents a compelling view of Temple Grandin’s life, through an incredible performance by Claire Danes, and powerful filmmaking from Mick Jackson. What would potentially be a cliche ridden slog, was fresh and interesting, and I’d highly recommend throwing this film in your Netflix Queue, or picking it up from Amazon.
If you’re interested in learning more about the real life Temple Grandin, I’m going to include a YouTube clip from a recent TED (Technology Education & Design) Conference, in which Grandin speaks on the different types of thinkers, as well as a bit on her own history. She briefly mentions the film in her talk, and her feelings towards it.
Golden Globe ® winner Claire Danes (My So Called Life, Romeo+ Juliet, The Family Stone) gives a triumphant and memorable performance as Temple Grandin, an autistic young woman who became one of America’s most remarkable success stories. No ordinary biopic, HBO Films’ Temple Grandin tackles the life story of an extraordinary human being who went on to become a scientist, best-selling author and groundbreaking animal advocate despite the challenges of autism. In stores on August 17, 2010, the DVD bonus materials include a ‘Making Of’ featurette and audio commentary with Dr. Grandin, director Mick Jackson and writer Christopher Monger.