A film review by Craig J. Koban March 2, 2010

Rank:  #18



2010, no MPAA rating, 110 mins.


Claire Daines: Temple Grandin / Catherine O'Hara: Aunt Ann / Julia Ormond: Eustacia / David Strathairn: Professor Carlock


Directed by Mick Jackson / Written by Christopher Monger and Merritt Johnson

"If I did not have my work, I would not have any life."

- Temple Grandin


HBO’s extraordinarily immersive new film, TEMPLE GRANDIN, is an endlessly compelling biopic about a most unlikely genius.  

It tells a modest, but thoroughly intriguing, tale of its title persona, a woman that was born in the late 1940’s and diagnosed with brain damage by the age of two.  By 1951 she was further diagnosed with having severe – but high functioning – autism, so bad that she completely abstained for all physical contact with others, not to mention that it left her incapable of speaking until she was four-years-old.  

What then followed in her life goes well beyond the simplistic label of “inspirational”: She graduated from a structured boarding school in New Hampshire in 1966 and then went on to receive her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Franklin Pierce College.  Eventually, she would go on to achieve both a Master’s and PhD in animal science from the University of Illinois and from there she managed to single-handedly revolutionize the methods of herding cattle to slaughterhouses across the US.  The end title cards indicate that, because of her radical designs, 60 per cent of the nation’s slaughterhouses were changed for the better. 

All of this…from a person that doctors - at an early time in her upbringing - wanted institutionalized for the rest of her life. 

What makes this woman such an intrinsically fascinating persona – and the subject of one of the most involving and observant docudramas in many a moon – is her outlook and perspective on life.  Grandin suffered from an incurable and not readily understood disorder that made her a laughing stock to her educational peers, a mystery to her doctors, and…well…a real personal challenge to her family.  Her miraculous story of perseverance and determination can largely be attributed to – by her own admission – very early scholastic intervention.  She had certain teachers and educators that did not pathetically ignore her autism, but used it as an outlet to explore her other astonishing gifts.  

Gradin’s hypersensitivity to most external stimuli allowed her to become a pre-eminent visual thinker.  In other words, her visual memory is so acute and painstaking that she can remember the most minute of details by just glancing over them.  She has compared her memory skills in her writings to full-length movies that she creates in her head that can be played, rewound, fast-forwarded, and paused at will.  Because of her stupendous gifts with cognitive recall, Grandin was able to make an indelible imprint as a livestock facility designer that made her legendary in the industry, so legendary that she has been interviewed in Time, People, Forbes, and The New York Times and has been the subject of multiple documentaries.  Her professional life would arguably not have occurred if it were not for her condition: “If I could snap my fingers and become non-autistic, “ she once famously commented, “then I would not do so.  Autism is a part of who I am.” 

Grandin’s story has been adapted to the small screen with great care and attention by writers Christopher Monger and Merritt Johnson and director Mick Jackson.  It tells a fractured narrative, weaving and interweaving back and forth from key turning points in her life, which allows for our quick investment in her as a character and further allows us the opportunity to dissect what made this woman really tick.  We see her from her most troublesome childhood years to her equally difficult adolescent years (periods beset by obstacles both directly and indirectly as a result of her medical condition) and the final rousing and triumphant later period when her humane methods of handling livestock and her unimpeachable understanding of animal psychological made her second to none in her field.  It would have been deceptively easy to make TEMPLE GRANDIN one of those lamentably sugarcoated and overly sentimentalized biopics that reek of familiarity (i.e. – the handicapped persona that perseveres over their handicap to become someone of significance), but the way the film defies genre conventions is to its credit.  TEMPLE GRANDIN also defies expectations for the way it is a biopic that large scale, silver screen Hollywood directors frequently get wrong: it’s revealing, surprising, thoughtful, and, most importantly, gets us directly inside the mindset of its subject matter without heinously manipulating the audience's emotions for cheap effect.  Grandin never becomes a one-note, disposable caricature here, but a figure worthy of our interest. 

We initially meet Grandin (played in a career-defining performance by Claire Daines, showing a remarkable depth that I have never noticed before) as she is visiting her Aunt Ann (a nicely understated Catherine O’Hara) on her ranch in East Texas.  Of course, Anne tries to keep Temple “busy,” mostly out of the fears of her mother, Eustacia (a solid and inwardly strong Julia Ormond) that her daughter’s autism will erupt without notice.  Predictably, Temple’s emotional breakdowns – with are oftentimes fierce and without provocation – don’t illicit outright shock and dismay in her relatives and those around her.  The nice thing about the film is that she is surrounded by nice people that want to assist her for the better. 

In the flashback sequences to her early childhood we learn that there were also many that did not want to directly assist her for the better (one sad moment shows a doctor recommending institutionalization), but Temple’s dogged and headstrong mother will have nothing of it.  The miracle of Temple’s highly improbable academic life could be attested to the ways her mother strived and struggled for years to figure out ways to allows Temple to overcome the debilitating aspects of her condition to find avenues that would allow her to succeed in school.  What’s even more incredible about this maternal figure is that she took great pains to understand autism at a time when even the medical profession didn’t understand it fully. 

One of the early champions of Temple’s scholastic awakening is a teacher (played with a characteristic and soft spoken authority by David Strathairn) that works with her at a progressive boarding school and discovers that Temple has a supreme gift of thinking in pictures, not words.  She sees order, patterns, and correlations in manners that even scientists can’t muster, and it is Temple’s unique perspective that easily sets her apart (one of the film’s most illuminating and spirited sequences highlights her attempting to use her thought-processes to decipher how one particular optical illusion has been created, and the film relishes in these moments of personal exploration and achievement).   

Temple begins to have other unbelievable breakthroughs from here:  Through her systematic visual recall and memory, she begins to detect patterns with the ways that her Aunt’s cattle behave on her ranch and, even later, her understanding of cattle in general allowed her to value and comprehend the stimuli that made these animals sensitive.  Through all of this she managed to harness a deep focus into graduate and Doctorate work on animal husbandry.  One of the ways that TEMPLE GRANDIN works is the way it literally makes the viewer see the world around her as she does: When Temple sees a device or an animal, for example, the film creates a spontaneous series of blue prints and diagrams over the objects in question to visually display how Temple processes information so swiftly.  This is one of the very few films about mental disorders that makes you not only understand, but see it through the eyes of the sufferer, and on such an intimate level. 

Grandin’s meteoric rise, however, did not come easily: Her autism largely made her an outcast figure from the rest of the society.  She suffers from hypersensitivity so profoundly that, even to this day, most human contact is nearly impossible (even a small, but tender moment where her mother finally is able to brush her hand on her daughter’s shoulder is a breakthrough).  Grandin is forced to wear comfortable clothes to counteract her sensory issues and has to structure her daily life to avoid any sensory overload.  One of her most amazing contraptions – that also made her so stridently misunderstood in her formative years - was a "squeeze-box" that was derived from similar devices that cattle ranchers use to calm down cattle.  Her own box accommodates her frame and, with the release of a pulley, she gets instant stress relief.  Well into her PhD studies she still maintained the contraption in her home. 

Most lay filmgoers will no doubt associate autism with the famous Dustin Hoffman performance ion RAIN MAN, but Claire Daines in TEMPLE GRANDIN does something even more encompassing: She never makes Grandin an over-the-top buffoon worthy of mockery, nor does she make this creation so light-hearted and affable that it shameless bathes the story with the euphoric glow of a feel-good-movie-of-the-week.  No, Daines – borderline unrecognizable here – makes Grandin such a multi-faceted and intriguing creation, showing her as a woman fraught with obstacles both caused by her autism and by external ones unrelated to it (not only was it painfully difficult to get professional respect as a person with a misunderstood disease, but she also was a woman trying to stake a claim in a male dominated occupational world that saw little relevance for her gender).  What Daines does is a marvel of immersion: She shows Grandin as a woman oftentimes confined like an animal within her condition but, slowly but surely, she uses her autism to her distinct advantage.  Yes, there are times when she is eminently loveable, but she is also presented as a person that is so incalculably anti-social and distressed that can test the most patient of loved one.  The film is a testament to not only her resolve to empower herself, but also to those around her that saw potential where so many others did not.  It’s a shame that Daines’ work here is limited to cable television, because her towering performance is easily the stuff of an early and well deserving Oscar-consideration. 

Ultimately, what makes TEMPLE GRANDIN such a must-see biopic – outside of Daines’ revelatory and superlative performance, destined for Emmy gold -  is how freshly and evocatively unsentimental the whole film is framed: The film plays many of its smaller and more modest scenes for just the right dramatic and comic effect, but Grandin herself is anything but a source of weepy and sanctimonious indulgence by the filmmakers.  She is, by many standards, not an easy woman to dissect, understand, and at times like, but Grandin’s story rises well above the type of mournful peachiness that I was expecting from films like this, nor does it waste out time with being a staunch animal rights advocate work (it’s important to note that Grandin is not against people eating animals, but just ensuring that animals are processed for our consumption in the most humane manners possible).  Ultimately, though, TEMPLE GRANDIN is an intoxicatingly alluring biopic for how dutifully it submerges viewers in Grandin’s life and times, and it does so without egregiously pulling at our collective heartstrings or trivializing her struggles and esteemed accomplishments.  The more the film fleshes out her incredible life, the more alluring it becomes.  It’s one of 2010’s most keenly observant and undeniably mesmerizing real-life dramas, small screen or not, and it is harnessed by a scarily effective Claire Daines, who sheds away all pretense of her glamour, beauty, and movie star ego and vanity here.    


CrAiGeR's other

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RECOUNT  (2008 jjjj


TAKING CHANCE  (2009 jj1/2




YOU DON'T KNOW JACK  (2010 jjjj




CINEMA VERITE  (2011 jj1/2


TOO BIG TO FAIL  (2011jj1/2


GAME CHANGE  (2012) jjj




THE GIRL  (2012) jj


PHIL SPECTOR  (2013) jjj




CLEAR HISTORY  (2013) jjj



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