Let Claire Danes draw you into Temple Grandin.
You may initially be reluctant. For the first 10 minutes or so of this HBO biopic about the groundbreaking autistic author and scientist, what you'll most likely see is Danes playing a "freak." But wait a bit, Danes will disappear, and you'll just see the freak.
FIVE QUESTIONS: Interview and video with Claire Danes
And then, soon after that, the freak will vanish and you'll see Temple Grandin, in all her glory, strength and strange, barking beauty. And if at that moment you're ashamed that "freak" was your first thought, then this sublimely well acted and directed movie has done precisely what it set out to do.
Because there's no question that Temple, as she'd be the first to tell you, is different. She shuns human contact and can't read human expressions. She shouts out her thoughts in loud, staccato bursts — and doesn't realize normal people don't sing You'll Never Walk Alone as a graduation speech.
But Temple's autism gives her some advantages as well. She thinks in complete pictures, which director Mick Jackson and screenwriters Christopher Monger and William Merritt Johnson convey by cutting to diagrams and drawings. And she instinctively understands what frightens and comforts animals, which Danes conveys through the emotional clarity of her performance.
We meet Temple as a teenager, spending her summer before college on an Arizona ranch with her understanding aunt (Catherine O'Hara, proving she's as good at drama as she is at comedy). It's there that Temple discovers she has a knack for connecting with cows, a skill that will change both her life and the cattle industry.
For the rest of the film, we bounce in time as present battles recall those Temple has faced in the past. She hits setbacks and roadblocks — a few stupid doctors, some cruel children, a callous cattleman — but she perseveres and ultimately triumphs.
Like most HBO films, Temple has an exquisite sense of time and place; you can almost smell the cows and feel the heat. But unlike many, Temple is an incredibly joyous and often humorous film. There's no reason to feel sorry for Temple; she succeeds on her own terms.
But not on her own. She's guided by an incredibly (bordering on unbelievably) insightful and dedicated teacher, played with great warmth by David Strathairn. And she has the unwavering support of her mother, a character Julia Ormond brings to full, lovely life.
Yet as good as everything is around them, Temple Grandin belongs to two women: the real Temple, who appears to be a spectacular human being, and Danes, who is clearly a spectacular actor.
Fulfilling the promise she showed in My So-Called Life, Danes transforms herself into this woman, without condescending to her or turning the movie into a star-turn stunt. It's the kind of mature, powerful performance that wins awards and resets careers.
Take it in.
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