With this being Autism Awareness Month and communities still reeling from Superstorm Sandy, it’s tempting to dismiss “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” as a convenient combination of buzzwords – I nearly did. But while watching the film, I quickly dismissed those preemptive assumptions and became entranced with this poignant portrait of a family and their struggles on the outskirts of Manhattan, reminding me again about what makes the Tribeca Film Festival so great –- the heart-felt storytelling that sneaks through the red carpet barricades and evokes a transcendent realism, be it documentary or narrative.
Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez) is a 13-year-old boy who would prefer to feed the seagulls at Rockaway Beach than go to class. Sounds pretty typical, right? Well, Ricky is on the Autism spectrum and is severe enough that he will probably require some sort of supervision for the rest of his life. Even as a teenager, Ricky still needs his 15-year-old sister (Azul Zorrilla) to walk him home, as he doesn’t quite understand the concept of danger. When his sister fails to do that one chore, Ricky winds up wandering the streets and ultimately the New York subway system. Throughout the film, he is fascinated with circular shapes and patterns, which fuels his wandering when he spots a circular serpent decal on a man’s jean jacket. Deciding to follow that image, Ricky is led to the Queens-Manhattan ACE line and every so often sees similar designs over the next few weeks riding the rails. Although this motif of circular imagery is a bit worn out by the end of the film, it is a realistic representation of an autistic boy’s fascination with specific patterns, which would be enough distract him from going home, leaving him trapped in the subway with no one to point him the way out. This realism was brought even further home in the casting of Sanchez-Velez, an actor with Asperger syndrome who does a more than admirable job breathing life into a character frustrated by his inability to communicate and function in a world whizzing by him. For a boy presumably struggling to relate in his own life, Sanchez-Velez sure can communicate those experiences to a general audience and, through intimate nuances, make them relatable and sympathetic.
While Ricky is lost, his mother Mariana (Andrea Suarez Paz) and sister Carla are left to search for him, as the father (Tenoch Huerta Mejía) is working out of town for most of the film. Between Mariana working as an undocumented housekeeper for a self-absorbed “artist” and Carla attempting to forge her own identity through slight rebellion, there are enough clichés to nearly be dismissed by a more pessimistic moviegoer, but you must remember that there are reasons why these scenarios are cliché – because they are true to life. Both actresses shine and turn these character points into innate truths. Two scenes stick out in particular: Mariana standing at church, attempting to sing along and pray, but the hope drains from her face, turning into plaintive despair as the desperation of her search for Ricky sinks in, and Carla pleading with her mother to not be so quick to judge, that Mariana won’t let her and her near-absentee father be anything more than disappointments. On a more personal note, as a sibling of someone with autism, the interactions between Mariana and Carla are the most authentic representations of a family with a member on the spectrum that I have ever seen in cinema, and for that alone, I would recommend this film.
The sincerity and earnestness of “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” are brave and true and I applaud not only the actors, but the screenwriters (Rose Lichter-Marck and Micah Bloomberg) and director Sam Fleischner for putting so much on the line and in the open. Not only did they tackle autism, socioeconomic issues, and dysfunctional families in Queens, but they present one of the most on-the-nose portrayals of the New York subway system in the past decade. This authenticity included making last-minute changes to the script to adapt it to Superstorm Sandy, which ultimately added to the film’s overall realism, particularly as THR pointed out that this development made “it slightly more believable that not a single citizen, worried about the stench and disorientation of this young kid, brought him to the attention of a transit worker or cop.” Although Eric Kohn makes a strong point when he writes that the film is “never quite the sum of its parts,” it certainly makes up for that with the ability to show a typical audience how an autistic mind channels his thoughts in New York City, one of the most sensory-challenging surroundings in the world.
Simply, “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” is a must-see film for anyone at the Tribeca Film Festival and should be on everyone’s to-watch list once it gets picked up, which shouldn’t be too far off. This is a timely story that has been desperately needed for a while now, not just for the autism community (who has had to live with “The Boy Who Could Fly” and “Rain Man” references for a few too many years), but by the cinematic world, which is always in need of a film that falls between documentary and narrative by simply being true. In a low-budget, Kickstarter-funded indie about being lost and searching, a whole lot has been found. [A-]