Dakota Fanning left an indelible mark as a child actress. She appeared in nine movies before the age of 10, and she entirely lived up to the aphorism about adults not working with children or animals -- having a tendency to regularly steal scenes from major actors. These performances all helped her build a reputation as an immensely talented actress, and it was only a matter of time before she found a project that could help her truly express her skills as a grown-up. Thankfully she now has director Ben Lewin's Please Stand By, which not only proves to be a fantastic vehicle for a phenomenal Fanning performance, but an all-together wonderful dramedy with rich, delightful characters, and genuinely heartwarming and funny storytelling.
Based on an original screenplay by Michael Golamco, Please Stand By begins in San Francisco, California introducing Wendy (Dakota Fanning), a young woman with extreme autism living in a home established by her caregiver, Scottie (Toni Collette). Bold and independent, Wendy has aspirations for a normal life where she can be trusted around her newborn niece -- daughter of her sister, Audrey (Alice Eve) -- but the greatest passion in her life is unquestionably Star Trek. Truly connecting with the intensely logical mind of Leonard Nimoy's Spock, she has not only memorized the entire canon of the expansive sci-fi world, watching old episodes religiously, but has also put together a massive 500-page screenplay that she feels reflects the entirety of Gene Roddenberry's original vision for the franchise.
After an extended period of disengagement, Audrey is scheduled for a special visit, hearing news that her sister has been doing well, but things melt down when Wendy is told that she is not yet ready to be around a baby. The only thing remotely calming her is the fact that there is a contest being held by Paramount Pictures calling for the world's best Star Trek fan script -- but that becomes another issue when she realizes that her mailed submission won't make it to the studio in time. Determined to submit her work, Wendy breaks all of Scottie's rules, crosses the warned barrier that is Market Street, and along with her tiny canine companion, Pete, makes her way down to Los Angeles where she can deliver her opus in person.
Tonally, Please Stand By is a tightrope walk from beginning to end, but ultimately deserves appreciation for its balance. Up front, there is the serious potential to be too mawkish or saccharine, but it never lets things get too melodramatic, and all of the genuine performances buy back a lot of the wonderful sweetness that the film has to offer. At the same time, the movie is surprisingly funny, featuring a number of real laugh-out-loud moments, but it's also incredibly sympathetic to the seriousness inherent in the subject matter. All of these factors blending could have left the film a total mess, or at worst feeling tone-deaf or insensitive, but it's a credit to the strength of the storytelling that's not the case.
As intimated, Dakota Fanning is the heart of the movie, and delivers one of the best performances of her adult career disappearing into Wendy. It's a challenging part, but the actress' success registers through not only recognition of the character's social weaknesses, but also her immense strengths. The audience is meant to be simultaneously worried and impressed by Wendy's independence, and Fanning's turn absolutely supplies that, with a tremendous grip on the protagonist's passion and complexity. She happens to also be supported by two other talented actresses putting in solid roles, as both Toni Collette and Alice Eve delivering admirable work, but it's Fanning's show.
Please Stand By is a tiny movie that will get limited exposure, but it's also a title worth searching out. It's quirky but never cloying; creative but never over-the-top; and funny without sacrificing drama. It's a sweet, soft bit of entertainment, armed with a fantastic lead performance and a fun story to tell.
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