Friday, November 10, 2017

DVD: Temple Grandin

"...They knew I was different, but not LESS."

Temple Grandin is a biopic about the famous scientist of the same name, who specializes in animal behaviour and who revolutionized the treatment of animals in the livestock industry. What makes Temple Grandin so unique is that she is autistic. Temple was diagnosed as a child in the 1950's when autistic children were often institutionalized. Her mother courageously refused this path for Temple, instead encouraging, teaching and advocating for her daughter.

Temple's story begins when she is a struggling teenager about to go to college. The story of her childhood is told in flashbacks. In the film, Temple arrives at her Aunt Ann's ranch in the summer. Temple's mother and father have divorced and her mother, Eustacia has remarried (although this is not shown in the movie). Temple has been sent to the ranch to give her mother a break from the summer. It is during her time at the ranch that she begins to discover her true passion - a love and respect for animals.

Temple sees everything in pictures and has a heightened sense of hearing. She looks at the ranch gate and sees angles and geometry. The sounds of the cutlery rattling, the cattle mooing, and the banging of the cattle gates all startle her. Aunt Ann shows Temple her room, and in order to make her feel welcome,  puts a sign up that says "Temple's Room".

Temple's attention is immediately grabbed by the cattle and their response to what is happening to them. She is particularly fascinated by how the cattle are calmed at being placed in the "hug box", leading her to ask a cowboy why this works. He tells her it "gentles" the cattle.

When Temple finds herself overwhelmed and frightened she begins putting herself in the hug box, much to the horror of the cowboys and her Aunt Ann. Otherwise her days at the ranch are filled with interesting things to do and see. She creates a special pulley system for the ranch gate, and learns to ride a horse with a reputation for being unruly and dangerous. When Eustacia visits the ranch she is upset to see that Temple uses the hug box but comes to understand that this calms her daughter. Despite Temple's insistence that she stay on the ranch, Eustacia sends her to Franklin Pierce College in 1966.

At Franklin, Temple's anger at not having a roommate like the rest of the girls, brings the first flashback of the movie. Eustacia remembers taking Temple to a psychologist in 1951. He bluntly tells her that her daughter is clearly autistic, an infantile schizophrenic who will never learn to talk and who should be institutionalized. When Eustacia presses him on other alternatives he tells her there is no treatment and that this is believed to be the result of a lack of bonding with a cold and aloof mother. Eustacia angrily tells the doctor it is Temple who refuses to be hugged. Instead of taking the doctor's advice, Eustacia begins to try to teach Temple to talk, a task that is frustrating.

Life at Franklin Pierce is not easy for Temple. Overwhelmed by the sounds and sensations, she decides to build herself her own hug box out of plywood. However, this is completely misunderstood by the students and faculty. Temple attempts to explain what her "squeeze machine" does, that it makes her feel calm but the doctor interviewing her believes it has a sexual function and the box is removed from her room. Temple returns to her Aunt Ann's ranch where she rebuilds the squeeze machine and she and her mother return to Franklin Pierce to explain how it works. They agree to allow the squeeze box back in Temple's room if she can prove it works by having the students use it and measuring their reactions. When she submits her paper on her research and receives an F, Temple goes into crisis and calls her mentor, Dr. Carlock.

At this point a second flashback tells how Temple came to meet Dr. Carlock when she enrolls in  Hampshire Country School in 1962. After Temple was expelled from her school, her mother took her to this boarding hoping to enroll her. During a meeting with staff, Eustacia decides to leave, believing that the school won't work for Temple. However, Dr. Carlock, who teaches science at Hampshire Country  tells Eustacia that he finds Temple wonderful and that she has done everything right as a parent. He feels the school has much to offer Temple, that they understand how different she is and that this is the first step towards getting Temple out into the world. Temple enrolls at the school and quickly Dr. Carlock comes to understand that Temple is an outstanding visual thinker. When she is ready to move on, but expresses reservations and fear, Dr. Carlock tells Temple to think of college as " a door. A door that's going to open up to a whole new world for you." It is this image that Temple carries with her for the rest of her life and it motivates her now ask that her paper be reconsidered.

Temple working with Dr. Cardstock in the movie.
She is eventually allowed to keep her squeeze machine and her new roommate, Alice who is blind accepts Temple for who she is. The two young women can relate because they experience the world around them in ways that are profoundly different from other people. Temple sees the world in pictures, while Alice sees the world through sound and voices.

Dr. Carlock's image of a door helps Temple as she works her way through college and a Masters of Science in animal science at Arizona Statue and into a career as an advocate for the humane treatment of animals. Temple is shown succeeding through sheer determination and smarts to outwit the obstacles in her path. She becomes a renowned scientist and a voice for people with autism.


Temple Grandin is a moving account of this famous autistic woman's life. The film is both touching and informative as it presents life from the perspective of an individual with autism. The film does an excellent job of demonstrating the unique way in which Temple's mind works and how she uses this to make significant contributions in her work with livestock.

From the very beginning of the movie, Temple is shown to think in pictures. For example, she looks at the ranch gate and views it geometrically in angles and shapes. In French class, which Temple hates, she explains to the teacher that she simply looks at the page, sees a picture of it in her mind and then can read what is written from that picture. She thinks literally with pictures; when Aunt Ann tells her they get up with the rooster, Temple pictures them sitting next to the rooster on the barn roof! And when Uncle Mike mentions miracles,  Temple sees an image of Jesus walking on water. Temple also has the ability to see situations on the ranch from an animal's perspective. Curious as to why the cattle are afraid to go into "the dip", Temple gets down on her hands and knees and crawls through the chute, seeing the shadows, glare of sunlight and metal chains that are frightening.

A squeeze machine for autistic individuals.
While Temple understands animals, she doesn't understand people's reactions and they do not understand hers. She doesn't like to be hugged but finds the squeeze machine used to steady cattle during inoculations to be comforting. Temple's resourcefulness leads her to build one for her own use.

The movie highlights her mother Eustacia's relentless efforts to help her becoming a functioning, contributing adult, advocating for her daughter and refusing to institutionalize her when she was a young child. Her efforts are acknowledged by Dr. Carlock but it isn't until the end of the movie when Temple gets up to speak at an autism convention in 1981 that Eustacia realizes that Temple does understand the efforts she's made on her behalf. This is perhaps the most touching moment in the entire movie because Eustacia's efforts have helped Temple to succeed in a way likely neither of them ever dreamed.

Temple's determination to forge her own path, to figure out how to live in a world where she thinks differently and to follow her passion are the focus of this film. And her passion is the humane care of animals raised for food. She explains that the animals deserve our respect and they should not die afraid and in pain. She tells the ranchers and those who run feedlots, "Nature is cruel, but we don't have to be." Temple learns how the animals feel, is able to visualize what they see and discovers what frightens them (shadows, lights, and chains) and what calms them. Based on these discoveries, Temple goes about working to change how cattle are treated in an industry rife with concern for animal welfare. She is met with sexism, resistance and anger, but she persists and succeeds. Her design of a curved corral to calm and direct cattle as they are led to "the dip" seems almost self-evident and yet the cattlemen don't understand her new methods at all. As the film credits state, today almost half of cattle in the United States are handled using her methods.

Temple eventually becomes an advocate for autistic individuals, although this is shown only at the very end of the movie in what is a very touching scene. Based on a true event that occurred at a autistic convention, Temple speaks up, explaining how her mind works and why she behaves in certain ways. For the first time, parents and doctors are hearing what it's like to be autistic from an person with autism.

That the movie Temple Grandin succeeds in portraying all of this is amazing and is in large part due to actress Claire Danes' brilliant performance as Temple Grandin. Danes gives a believable and touching performance that offers a window on how the autistic brain works. Dane captures Temple's frustrations, her joy when she succeeds and her resourcefulness and determination. Her performance won her an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild award. She spent considerable time preparing for the role, learning Grandin's way of speaking and her awkward movements. Danes also has stated that she had to force herself not to emotionally connect with the other actors on the set. For Temple Grandin it was rewarding seeing herself portrayed so accurately and she was thrilled to see her revolutionary "dip" recreated exactly as she designed it.

Catherine O'Hara and Julia Ormond supply incredible supporting performances as Aunt Ann and as Eustacia.  David Straitharn captures a kind, patient and understanding Dr. Carlock who helps Temple face her fears and who guides her. Directed by Mick Jackson, Temple Grandin is a remarkable film about a remarkable, talented scientist and woman.

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