Dakota Fanning Chases a Trekkie Dream in ‘Please Stand By’

Please Stand By is a low-budget indie production with an interesting, even endearing premise. A girl tries to defy the odds and prove she’s a writer, even when everyone around her sees her as some sort of patient. The driving force of this movie is Dakota Fanning, who creates one of those personalities that is admirable for her rejection of the cards life hands us. This is the kind of drama that can veer into being corny at times, but not fatally so because of the casting. By the end we grow to care about the main character because it’s highly possible you know someone like this.

Fanning plays Wendy, a rebellious autistic woman who lives in the care of a group home supervised by Scottie (Toni Collette). Wendy is a hardcore “Star Trek” fan who spends her free time writing stories. For a while now she has been obsessed with finishing a major project, her very own “Star Trek” script to submit for a competition hosted by Paramount. She must get to Los Angeles on time to submit the script and have a chance at winning. But her own life is a scarred mess which includes painful family memories, and the unwillingness of her guardians such as Scottie and her sister Audrey (Alice Eve) to understand her passions. She decides to go it alone and head to L.A. to deliver the script herself.

At first glance at the premise of “Please Stand By” can sound farcical, like a parody of Trekkie culture. Instead it’s an attempt at taking a pop culture item we’re mostly all familiar with and use it give relatable context to Wendy’s predicament. She sounds like those hyper fans who can easily spin alternative scenarios around their favorite movies or comic books, amassing endless knowledge about “Star Trek” in her mind. But the screenplay by Michael Golamco, if approached a certain way, is about how so many people escape into their obsessions over a show, movie or video game to block out the real, hurtful world. Wendy may feel alone or pressured, but never when she escapes into her work. The film at times cuts to a fantasy scene where Wendy and a companion walk through a Mars-like terrain, with her story feeling like a sci-fi interpretation of her own struggles. As her road trip to Los Angeles gets harsh and even dangerous, it’s her pages that are her lifeline.

Director Ben Lewin doesn’t go for any kind of flashy style. He shoots this story directly and simply. The camera’s sole focus is Fanning, who plays Wendy with an interesting set of choices in how she expresses insecurity, deep wounds and sheltered anger through a twitch or walk. Even when the movie threatens to resemble a Lifetime production with the required hearts of gold conveniently appearing (look no further than Patton Oswalt as a Klingon-speaking police officer), Fanning keeps the scenes interesting with her energetic delivery. She plays the role without over-emphasizing the autistic angle of the character, she uses that particular detail to form a personality. It’s easy to feel for the character as she writes day and night, then hits the road clinging to her pages. Interestingly enough, these moments never become whacky but endearing, even when other aspects of the movie get cheesy. The supporting cast do what they’re supposed to in these movies: Worry, cry, slowly realize Wendy isn’t that crazy. The only thing missing is a love interest, which thankfully Lewin avoids. He knows the story is about someone deemed “different” because of their wiring who just needs someone to listen. You can’t help but root for Wendy when she finds a way to escape from a hospital room or stubbornly spends the night at a bus station, driven by a will to prove she can do something she has set out to accomplish.

I imagine “Please Stand By” will find any audience it is destined to have through streaming services like Netflix. Movies like this tend to disappear amid bigger, better advertised titles. While it isn’t a great film, it has a certain charm in its premise, and Fanning carries it all with a surprisingly engaging performance. There are genuinely moving moments and those who will discover this movie, possibly by accident, might be surprised by what they find if they give it a chance.

Please Stand By” opens Jan. 26 in select theaters.