Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Danes loses herself in HBO film role

Dale Roe

At several points in HBO Films' "Temple Grandin," Claire Danes — as the autistic titular character — gets excited, angry or confused and begins to shout in a voice reminiscent of Dana Carvey channeling Jimmy Stewart.

I don't mean this as a criticism. In fact, I mention it only to point out that Danes so completely immerses herself in her character that her performance becomes refreshingly free of actorly artifice — who would choose that voice on purpose? — no easy feat when saddled with such a sympathetic, disability-sporting, Emmy-baiting role.

The lack of conscious craft is perfect because the autistic but ingenious Grandin herself, with a photographic memory that translates words into images and processes everything literally, is more or less incapable of guile.

We meet Grandin as a young girl, in the summer between high school and college. Those who've had a great teacher — somebody who really understood them — will sympathize with her angst over leaving science Professor Carlock (David Straithairn). Carlock was the first to realize that Grandin heard words as pictures and used this knowledge to reach and teach her, instilling a love of the subject that led her to achieve a master's degree in animal science.

Flashbacks depict Grandin as a toddler who did not speak until she was four. Her mother, Eustacia (Julia Ormond), desperately loves her daughter and longs to cuddle, but refuses to coddle, her (the actual Temple Grandin credits her mother's enforcement of a strict, 1950s upbringing as being instrumental in her eventual achievements). Eustacia is frustrated by a daughter who refuses to communicate and won't allow herself to be hugged.

During that transitional summer at her Aunt Anne's farm, Grandin identifies with the cattle and becomes fascinated by a contraption used to confine them, clamping around their necks and squeezing them at the sides to prevent movement. She sees how this calms the creatures and, in the midst of a panic attack, throws her own body into the device, which instantly comforts her. Handy with a saw and ingenious with angles and measurements, Grandin assembles her own "squeezing machine" at college. Mistaken by the faculty and other students for a sexual device, the contraption nearly gets Grandin expelled and further ostracizes her from her taunting classmates.

The second, post-college half of the film is more entertaining but somewhat less successful than the first, but that's only because it feels a little rushed as Grandin builds confidence, learns self-control and discovers how to exploit the unique talents her condition provides, eventually revolutionizing the cattle industry by preaching efficiency and humane treatment. Facilities that Dr. Grandin designed account for half of the cattle handling in the United States.

The film, shot in and around Austin, is beautiful to look at, and director Mick Jackson employs a creative visual technique to show how Grandin views and processes the non-autistic world that surrounds her. The photographic clicks and stills the director employs when Grandin focuses on details easily could have been overused, but Jackson uses them appropriately, if not sparingly, and they occasionally provide moments of humor as well as keen perception into Grandin's mind. When a teacher tells her the permission slip for a college project smells as if it had been signed by half of the cows in the pasture, Grandin's mind instantly produces a photo of herds of cows sitting behind desks with pens. Jackson also uses repetitive images of doorways: Grandin sought out actual doors to walk through (and lock into her memory) when transitioning into each successive period of her life.

It was a pleasant surprise to recognize local actors on the big screen, including Hyde Park Theatre's Ken Webster as a draftsman and Steve Uzzell of San Marcos as the psychologist who recommended that 4-year-old Grandin be permanently institutionalized.

Grandin encourages those working with autistic children to try and get them to "tune in." That's good advice in relation to this movie for anybody with access to HBO. "Temple Grandin" shows Sunday, Feb. 14 at 9:30 a.m. on HBO. For more airings, visit the HBO Web site.