By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 6, 2010; C01
Draped in the antisocial veil of autism, Temple Grandin nevertheless earned advanced degrees in agricultural science in the 1970s. She found niche fame as a sort of savant of the ranching industry, where she revolutionized the design of slaughterhouses by turning them into curvaceous, calming settings for a beef ballet, bluntly insisting that one must understand cows to more effectively kill them.
Arcane as the subject matter might sound (imagine the 10-second pitch to studios: "It's 'Rain Man' meets 'Fast Food Nation!' "), "Temple Grandin" is an amazingly assembled, superbly acted, strikingly sweet film about Grandin's life -- and the cows' death. "I'm Temple Grandin, and I'm not like other people," thunders actress Claire Danes right away in the title role, which has put her in a wild wig of curls and a yellowed overbite.
From preview ads for the HBO movie (airing Saturday night), you might snarkily worry that Danes and the filmmakers have committed the very sin that Ben Stiller and company deplored in the comedy "Tropic Thunder," which lambastes the actor who would go "full [epithet Rahm Emanuel no longer uses]" in a schmaltzy character role.
Set those fears aside. "Temple Grandin" is at once inventive, emotional, funny and determinedly precise about what it means to say. It moves backward, forward and sideways through Temple's life story, unafraid to tinker with concepts of chronology and meaning as it creates its own visual language to depict the world through an autistic prism. It raises awareness and respect without insisting that you wear the rubber cause bracelet; it is that very rare made-for-TV movie that can be sappy without overserving the sap.
Directed by Mick Jackson (whose credits include "The Bodyguard" and "Tuesdays With Morrie"), the movie begins as the troubled teenager visits her uncle and aunt (Catherine O'Hara) on their cattle farm, where she is endlessly curious about the bovines -- how they move, why their moods change.
Transfixed by a metal chute that squeezes a cow or bull during routine inoculations, Temple takes to entering the contraption on all fours and letting it grip her body. It creates for her the same mysterious calming affect that it does for the animals. Having rejected the slightest physical contact all her life (a symptom of autism), Temple has finally understood what it means to be hugged. At college, she builds her own machine, as a coping mechanism.
Danes, who first beguiled TV viewers with her starring role in "My So-Called Life" 16 years ago, seems patient enough to navigate her career away from acting in too much junk, but it often means months and years of waiting to see her again. Now 30, Danes has been rewarded here with Christopher Monger and William Merritt Johnson's intuitive screenplay (based on Grandin's autobiographical books), and she expertly walks that fine line between realism and parody.
The strong supporting cast includes not only O'Hara but also David Strathairn, as the boarding school science teacher who recognizes Temple's talents, and Julia Ormond, who lends a heartbreaking presence as Eustacia Grandin, the mother whom Temple cannot hug. After another disastrous social encounter at a family party, Eustacia begs her daughter to lock eyes with people and read what's there, to see their emotions the way she sees cattle:
"This is me telling you that I love you and respect you," Eustacia says.
"I will never learn how to do that," Temple replies.
All this praise is not to say that "Temple Grandin" is an advanced cinematic achievement. (And it certainly has "HBO Emmy bait" written all over it.) It is a biopic replete with those time-saving edits and other narrative conveniences that surely gloss over Grandin's actual difficulties. And some of its climactic moments are clearly meant to "inspire," but those moments tend to disrupt the movie's confidence in its own loveliness. "Temple Grandin" is best when it relies on Grandin's strangely poetic personality, especially when it comes to her confusion on the subject of our souls.
"Where do they go?" Temple always asks, watching closely at the moment when a doomed cow gets it between the eyes and slumps dead.
The mystery of death defies her linear, science-obsessed mind. Not for nothing is "Temple Grandin" a more enlightened slaughterhouse movie than the ones Hollywood has made before, movies that usually make you want to turn vegan.
Temple, who teaches at Colorado State University, is no traditional animal rights activist; she designs better slaughterhouses because it makes sense.
"We raise them for us. That means we owe them our respect," she says.
The filmmakers might hope their project catches on with the autism research movement, but I'll wager that the beef council hopes you get to know Temple, too.
(two hours) airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.