Fan fiction isn’t exactly the most respected art form. It’s not often that you see someone list the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey started as Twilight fan fiction as a positive trait. And yet, there must be some reason the form endures. Please Stand By, the new film written by relative newcomer Michael Golamco and directed by Ben Lewin (The Sessions) offers one possibility.
Wendy (Dakota Fanning), the protagonist of the film, is autistic, but she finds self-expression and comfort in writing Star Trek fan fiction. So, when she hears of a contest to submit a Star Trek spec script to Paramount, she devotes all of her free time to the task. However, after failing to mail it off in time, she sets off to hand-deliver the script to the studio. What follows is an odd, stressful road movie where Wendy learns to be self-sufficient while her sister Audrey (played by one-time Star Trek actress Alice Eve) and her therapist (the aptly named Scottie, played by Toni Collette) try to find her.
Though we only hear snatches of Wendy’s 400+ page script, it’s probably safe to bet that nobody would accuse it of being underwritten. The same cannot be said for Golamco’s. The beginning of the film was originally performed as a one act play and it deftly establishes the characters and how hard Wendy has to work to do the things everyone else takes for granted. It’s tight, clever writing and we immediately empathize with Wendy and hope she succeeds. However, as the film goes on, the character work and the plot become looser and less believable.
Some of those issues are justifiable. The way people treat Wendy can seem callous, but they don’t know she’s autistic. So, even if the moments where a bus station attendant leaves her sleeping outside all night or a convenience store worker tries to overcharge her for a bag of Snickers are cruel, they’re on some level understandable. Less easy to forgive is the way Scottie and Audrey act when Wendy runs away.
Considering she could easily be sued for losing a patient, Scottie is not nearly as harried or angry at herself as she should be. Likewise, Audrey is not nearly as angry at really anyone. We see her shame for upsetting Wendy the day before and her sadness over how hard her sister’s life is, but we never really see her frustration. Yes, this is Wendy’s story, but it’s also about the difficulties of caregiving and both characters lack a needed sense of human frailty.
In fact, the problem isn’t that Golamco doesn’t try to flesh them out, he just goes about it in the wrong way. While Audrey’s concerned husband and young child are mostly plot devices, Scottie’s son, Sam (River Alexander), figures into the plot. We get that he’s supposed to resent his mother’s commitment to her job through his sullenness, but his main function is to help explain all the Star Trek minutiae to her and the audience. It’s a subplot that adds nothing emotionally and could easily have been replaced with a montage of Scottie just googling what a tribble is instead.
Given that this film’s climax includes a speech about how important self-expression is and how cruel it is to dismiss it, it’s difficult to be so critical of Please Stand By. Writing doesn’t need to mean something to everyone to have value. Sometimes all it needs to do is let a niche group express their devotion to a TV show or allow someone who is autistic or knows someone who is to see themselves onscreen. Maybe the movie isn’t great, but maybe it doesn’t have to be to have value.