“The movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” Roger Ebert once said. “It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” Stand Clear of the Closing Doors illustrates this principle as well as any fiction film in recent memory. The second feature from Sam Fleischner—and his first solo directing effort—has a meandering, somewhat underdeveloped quality to it, and yet this drama compensates with a quiet compassion for its characters. Like the film itself, they’re initially unremarkable but slowly and modestly begin to assert themselves, rewarding our patient attention without ever demanding it.
Set over the span of about a week in late October 2012, the film stars Jesus Sanchez-Velez as Ricky, a 13-year-old living in Rockaway Beach with his overworked illegal immigrant mother Mariana (Andrea Suarez Paz) and bratty sister Carla (Azul Zorrilla). A non-professional actor with Asperger’s, Sanchez-Velez is supremely vulnerable in the role of a boy diagnosed with autism. Ricky is sweet, but he’s also a handful. When he doesn’t take his medication, he can make mistakes like peeing on the toilet lid. And, in the incident that sets the film’s plot in motion, when he becomes distracted while his mom is scolding him on the phone, he can wander into the New York City subway system instead of coming home from school.
Stand Clear of the Closing Doors concerns Mariana’s realization that her son is missing, and the film is split into two sections: one in which she and Carla unsuccessfully try to track him down, and the other in which Ricky endlessly rides the subway, observing his fellow passengers both in the cars and on the platforms. Rose Lichter-Marck and Micah Bloomberg’s screenplay isn’t constructed to be a tense search picture, however. Atmospheric and languid, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors seems to be channeling Ricky’s wandering, obsessive mind. The camera focuses on real-life subway passengers with documentary-like simplicity, but the film also conjures up a dreamy mood as subway lights and random images overwhelm the frame for a few moments. At the same time, Mariana and Carla tensely live in the same apartment—Carla didn’t pick up Ricky after school like she normally does, which makes her mother furious at her—and Mariana hopelessly roams the beach, one of Ricky’s favorite spots, in the off chance that he might be there.
This is a sympathetic, observational film, and Fleischner (Wah Do Dem) means to use Ricky as a metaphor for anyone unable to communicate, trapped in his or her own bubble. Fleischner captures quick snatches of halting conversations between people of different languages, and issues of race, nationality and economic disparity keep appearing. (Mariana, who’s from Mexico, cleans the house of a comfortable white man. Homeless sleep on the subway nearby newspapers endorsing Mitt Romney for president.) Largely avoiding condescending to his impoverished central family or the subway denizens, Fleischner puts Ebert’s quote into practice: Ricky shares the journey, quite literally, with his fellow passengers, all of them (and us) part of the same experience.
Stand Clear of the Closing Doors’ unhurried pace allows for thoughtful reflection, but it does have its limits. Queens is a big place, but it eventually becomes irritating how long Mariana takes to expand her search beyond the beach and their immediate neighborhood. (It doesn’t fit with her understandable concern for Ricky’s helplessness and seems to be more a function of the filmmakers intentionally prolonging his subway ride for their own thematic purposes.)
Still, those reservations shouldn’t take away from the unaffected performances. Suarez Paz exudes an air of constant exhaustion, of barely holding it together, as Mariana, a mother who’s trying to raise a family with plenty of obstacles. (Her husband is working upstate somewhere, unable to help her find Ricky.) As for Sanchez-Velez, he has the trickier role. Because Ricky isn’t particularly expressive and can act out like a toddler when he’s mad, he can be a powerfully frustrating protagonist. (One of Stand Clear of the Closing Doors’ gentle ironies is that Ricky is about the only character who doesn’t realize how serious it is that he’s missing.) But that’s part of Fleischner’s point. In a movie about trying to see life through other people’s perspectives, Ricky constantly challenges our patience, testing the limits of our empathy. But that’s because, with his autism, he can’t adhere to what “we” expect in our self-reliant society or in our forward-momentum motion pictures. In its unassuming, graceful way, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors asks us not to judge Ricky. Instead, maybe we could try a little tenderness.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Sam Fleischner
Writers: Rose Lichter-Marck, Micah Bloomberg (screenplay); Rose Lichter-Marck (story)
Starring: Andrea Suarez Paz, Jesus Sanchez-Velez, Azul Zorrilla, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Tenoch Huerta Mejía, Kevin Bewersdorf
Release Date: May 23, 2014