When Autism Stars

HBO's new Temple Grandin biopic breaks the Rain Man mold—finally demonstrating that an autistic lead character doesn't have to be a mere collection of tics.

Of all the variations of human behavior actors portray on screen, autism may be one that the movies find easiest to signal.  Fill a refrigerator with identical boxes of microwaveable macaroni and cheese, have your leading man rock back and forth, repeat phrases, and occasionally bang his head against something, and audiences will get the message.  Do that with any sense of nuance, and you just might get nominated for an Academy Award, like Tom Hanks, Sean Penn, and Dustin Hoffman did for their portrayals of characters with autistic traits in weepies like Forrest Gump, I Am Sam, and Rain Man, the most famous pop culture document on autism.

Portrayals of autistic characters have been popular since Elvis teamed up with a posse of inner-city nuns (including Mary Tyler Moore) to help cure a poverty-stricken girl’s autism in 1969’s Change of Habit, and not simply since such roles are an awards lock.  Stereotypical characters with autism are a convenient and powerful device for convincing neurotypical people to mend their ways, or for demonstrating the saintliness of the people who put up with them.  These cinematic conceits make HBO’s Temple Grandin, a biopic of the acclaimed animal scientist and autism advocate (to premier on HBO on February 6 at 8 p.m.), particularly remarkable.  From the life of one of the best-known individuals with an autism spectrum disorder, director Mick Jackson has managed to make an utterly original movie about autism, simply by allowing Grandin, portrayed in a stunning performance by Claire Danes, to be the center of her own story.

The standard for Danes’ performance, of course, is Rain Man.  It’s clear from the first scene of that movie that Charlie Babbitt—the main character, played by Tom Cruise—is a fairly terrible person. It takes only a little bit longer to explain that his autistic-savant brother, Raymond, will be the agent of Charlie’s moral improvement.  Raymond’s life changes marginally after his brother takes him on an impromptu roadtrip; he learns to trust Charlie and to disavow K-Mart.  But the movie still ends with Raymond on a train headed back home to an institution in Cincinnati and to the routines that define his existence.  The real transformation is in Charlie, who learns to love and defend his brother’s capacity to love him back—and to treat his girlfriend better in the process.  Raymond may be an extraordinary creation by Dustin Hoffman, but he’s still a device produced when Charlie needs to change, and stowed back away once he’s no longer a necessary catalyst.

Adam, a 2009 romance about the relationship between a Beth, a privileged young woman, and Adam, a young man with Asperger’s syndrome, is even blunter in its uses of autism as a moral barometer for neurotypical people.  Among the early signs Beth has that Adam’s brain works differently from her own is his reluctance to give her his laundry card when she forgets hers, and that he doesn’t offer to help carry her groceries up the stairs.  At the end of the film, the audience is supposed to see that Adam’s made progress because he offers to help a new coworker with a pile of boxes.  It’s a weirdly servile view of Adam’s growth, measuring his progress solely in his utility to other people.  Beth is supposed to be rewarded for her goodness in even deigning to date her strange neighbor.  She dumps Adam for not loving her in the way she wants, then uses a story he told her as the basis for her first book.  It’s as if by briefly resisting her monstrous father, who wanted her to leave Adam from the start, Beth has done something heroic.

In refreshing contrast, the point of Temple Grandin is not to prove the goodness of Grandin’s mother, aunt, and high school science teacher, though their goodness is manifest, and its impact in her life is clear.  The support they give Grandin at various points, whether getting her admitted to a school for the gifted, or encouraging her love of animals, is not saintliness, but stubbornness and independence.

Most of the time, Grandin is on her own in the movie, facing up to circumstances far worse than those Raymond or Adam experience.  When the cattlemen at a stockyard where she’s working on her master’s thesis dump bull’s testicles all over her windshield, she condemns them for wastefulness—and later uses the incident to convince an agricultural magazine to begin publishing her articles. And when she braves an automatic door at a supermarket, long one of her fears, the woman who helps her on the way out turns out to be married to an executive at a slaughterhouse, where she gets her first major job. Grandin, and nobody else, reaps the benefits of her own bravery and growth.

And Temple Grandin doesn’t fall into the trap of imposing a conventional romantic subplot on a woman who has said clearly and repeatedly that she is uninterested in marriage or long-term partnership.  Rain Man couldn’t resist getting Raymond a smooch from his brother’s sympathetic girlfriend, and Adam ended up judging its main character by rigid romantic rules, rather than forcing Beth to confront her expectations and prejudices.  Other than a sly shot of Grandin channel-surfing past From Here to Eternity to a nature program, the movie is content to accept Grandin’s definitions of what’s important, and to leave romance outside of those boundaries.

It’s just one of many ways that the movie accepts Grandin’s perspective as dominant.  Rain Man offered occasional, beautiful flashes of what Raymond sees in the geometry of a bridge or the supports in a roadside crash barrier, but the movie never spent very long looking out from his eyes.  And Adam mostly shows its audience how Beth sees the things Adam tries to show her, like the Central Park raccoons she turns into a cute fictional family for her book, or the projections of stars and galaxies he has set up in his apartment.  The movie’s idea of showing viewers how disoriented Adam feels in social circumstances is to stick him and Beth in a restaurant inexplicably full of people in masks.

Temple Grandin, in contrast, makes extensive use of techniques like sketching and rapid slideshows of images to demonstrate how Grandin literally experiences the world.  The movie uses a framing device of an opening door, both as a psychological technique Grandin uses to calm herself at moments when she takes substantial risks, and as a literal manifestation of her interest in engineering and her fear of automatic doors.  There are moments when it seems a little cheesy, until Grandin explains to her mentor that when she thinks of an object like a shoe, all of her memories of such a thing are present at once.  As neurotypical members of the audience, our inability to see all those doors—and the weight of all those decisions—at the same time is our limitation, and perhaps our loss.

Not every person with autism will grow up to be like Temple Grandin, and not all movies will benefit from the template—and counsel—of a living subject like her.  But HBO’s fine biopic serves as an important reminder that people with autism spectrum disorders are individuals rather than collections of tics, that, as Charlie yells at Raymond in Rain Man, “You can't tell me that you're not in there somewhere!”  They, their families, and all of us deserve movies that recognize that they are more than their traits, whether onscreen or off.  Adam speaks for all of us when he reminds Beth, who has come to apologize with chocolate, “I’m not Forrest Gump, you know!”