“Do you know how hard it is to write something? All the thinking and planning and rewriting … because the story you want to tell means so much to you.” If we were to accuse Ben Lewin’s “Please Stand By” of a cunning it doesn’t otherwise display, we might think this impassioned speech, uttered by the film’s intrepid autistic heroine, might be a kind of sly safeguard against harsher critical judgments. After all, there’s no denying the strenuously decent motivations behind this kitten-soft story of obstacles surmounted, limitations exceeded and quirks winsomely mined.
In fact intentions this good, and executions this solidly indie, used to pave the way to Sundance, as they did with Lewin’s far superior last film, the award-winning “The Sessions.” So it’s perhaps its own kind of critique, and a reflection of the changing times with which “Please Stand By” feels curiously out of step, that this Lewin project is quietly debuting in a few theaters, and on VOD, Amazon and iTunes, the very same week his punnily titled baseball espionage film “The Catcher Was a Spy” plays Park City. A few years ago — perhaps in the same recent-past time period in which “Please Stand By” is set, dotted with mix CDs, white plastic Mac Books and tracks from Au Revoir Simone’s third album — this outwardly offbeat but actually formulaic, feelgood film would have been Sundance’s bread and butter.
Dakota Fanning plays Wendy, a young woman with autism spectrum disorder living in a San Francisco care home being patiently coached by psychologist Scottie (Toni Collette). Scottie’s name is a happy accident, or an irritating contrivance of Michael Golamco’s screenplay, depending on your mileage, because Wendy, who needs to be coaxed into maintaining eye contact for three seconds at a time, is an obsessive “Star Trek” fan. And since Paramount Pictures has launched one of those open contests for “Star Trek” film scripts that totally happen all the time, Wendy has been feverishly crafting a 450-page opus, excerpts from which we occasionally hear in voiceover. It actually sounds pretty good.
Wendy is convinced that if she wins, she will be able to save her childhood home from being sold and move back in with her doting but guilt-ridden sister Audrey (future “Star Trek” franchise alum Alice Eve) who has recently had a baby. But Wendy misses the postal deadline for the contest, and so decides to hand deliver the script — no mean feat for a developmentally challenged young woman with communication issues and a strict admonition to “never cross Market Street under any circumstances.” She sneaks out, with her little dog, Pete, in tow, and embarks on this perilous odyssey.
Of course, it’s not that perilous. One of the pitfalls of the film’s determinedly upbeat tone is that it robs it of any real stakes. Fanning is careful not to patronize in her performance, but if the film does not condescend, it does cosset — it cocoons Wendy in the bubble-wrap of life-affirming indie dramedy. She’s an obviously vulnerable, and next-to-penniless young woman sleeping outside bus stations and accepting rides from strangers, yet it’s difficult to imagine anything truly sordid occurring to the strains of Heitor Pereira’s happily humming score, and in the honey-bright palette of Geoffrey Simpson’s pretty photography.
The road-trip narrative sputters out of gas about halfway through, and Golamco’s solution is to conjure increasingly unlikely incidents out of thin air in order to keep the obstacles obstacling. This is a shame, and a bit of a waste, as the film has a game supporting cast apparently primed to deliver more texture to this rather wan story than it ever gets the chance to. Wendy’s encounter with a kindly African-American senior (the wonderful Marla Gibbs) or the gentle attentions of her Cinnabon co-worker (an underused Tony Revolori from “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” falling for a girl in a bakery again) are relationships that never develop, while Patton Oswalt’s deus-ex-machina cameo feels more like a nod to his offscreen persona than a believable character.
If you’re looking for an old-fashioned, feelgood indie, attractively played, with a very light dusting of “issues,” “Please Stand By” is a pleasant standby. But if you want edge, or genuine insight into autism — or even a real primer on the therapeutic potential of “Star Trek” philosophy — think about boldly going elsewhere.