Film Review: Stand Clear of the Closing Doors

Artful, sensitively observed drama of a mother’s anguish when her autistic son goes missing.

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, winner of a Special Jury Prize at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, is finally getting a theatrical release, and this low-key but artfully observant and humane film deserves attention.

The story centers on an undocumented Mexican family living in Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York. Mariana (Andrea Suarez Paz) cleans houses while her husband works upstate, and takes care of her autistic 13-year-old son Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez) and his older sister Carla (Azul Zorrilla). As teen girls do, Carla is starting to rebel and one day neglects to pick up Ricky at school. Fixated by a dragon illustration that resembles his own artwork, the boy wanders into the New York City subway system and rides the A train back and forth for days. A frantic Mariana searches for Ricky at the beach and his favorite neighborhood store, and eventually seeks help from the police. Adding to her desperation are reports of a pending weather crisis, 2012’s Super Storm Sandy.

Director Sam Fleischner filmed roughly half the drama on subway trains, securing waivers from the real-life passengers his cameras recorded. With a sharp eye for offbeat visual details and an ear for the music and cacophony of the transit system and its denizens, he uncannily recreates the sensitive perspective of his autistic protagonist. The audiovisual style here is jagged, impressionistic, sometimes heightened and surreal, abetted by the many colorful, boisterous individuals captured here and so familiar to New York's underground commuters.

Sanchez-Velez is a nonprofessional Fleischner found on an Asperger’s blog; his dazed but strangely alert, internalized performance doesn’t seek audience sympathy but seems right for the movie’s documentary-like feel. Though we fear for his plight, the film’s emotional fulcrum is newcomer Suarez Paz, who makes Mariana’s search immediate and heartbreaking.

Three-quarters into production, Sandy arrived, forcing Fleischner to rework his script—a development which only adds to the story’s urgency. Indeed, the buzz about the approaching storm enters the film so seamlessly, one could be fooled into believing it was always a part of the narrative.

In the year since the film premiered at Tribeca, New Yorkers were alerted by constant transit-system announcements to a similar case of a missing autistic boy, Avonte Oquendo, which ended tragically. Stand Clear of the Closing Doors opts for a more positive and somewhat mystical resolution, as Ricky miraculously finds his way home from the northern reaches of Manhattan just after his fractured family has bonded at a post-Sandy church service. The closing shot leaves you wanting more—and anticipating the next film from the talented Fleischner.

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