The 2010 HBO film, Temple Grandin, succeeds in demonstrating the different thinking styles of individuals on the autism spectrum. Television and film often sideline characters with autism by focusing on neurotypicals’ reactions to the condition. Examples of autistic characters functioning as catalysts for others' narratives include Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, Tommy Westphall in St. Elsewhere, and Jake Bohm in the fantasy-oriented Touch. As we saw earlier this week, even complex characters, like Max Braverman in Parenthood, are viewed through the perspective of neurotypical characters. The audience relates through the ongoing narrative of Max’s parents.
In the last decade, more major characters who are on the autism spectrum have emerged. The explicitly autistic Adam in the eponymous film and the undiagnosed Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory may be viewed with some empathy. Nonetheless, audiences will more likely identify with other more easily relatable (and neurotypical) protagonists.
However, in the biopic Temple Grandin, the main character dominates the narrative, with no supporting character appearing in more than a few scenes. As a result, the audience is forced to identify with both her struggles and successes.
Furthermore, the frequent use of montage conveys the complex differences and strengths of the autistic mind. Through montage, individual shots edited together create new meaning. Temple Grandin uses this technique to convey the visual orientation of people with autism. The repetitive shots of horses and shoes in this clip create a filmic representation of Grandin's thought process, focusing on the advantages of a strong visual memory and the ability to organize and classify.
By creating a visual depiction of her thinking processes, the neurotypical audience comes to better understand Grandin’s perspective. The film’s repeated use of montages and motifs, including doors opening (which transport Grandin metaphorically to her next achievement), serves to create a rapport between the character and the audience and offers a glimpse into her modes of thought. The movie gives Grandin a voice to explain why she feels and behaves as she does.
Temple Grandin succeeds uniquely; any subsequent film that uses the same techniques to explore autism will likely be labeled as derivative. Nonetheless, this film’s use of montage gives us valuable insight about those who think differently.