Stand Clear of the Closing Doors
Written by Rose Lichter-Marck and Micah Bloomberg
Directed by Sam Fleischner
Barry Levinson’s Rain Man is a decent film, but it did commit at least one serious mistake: it gave audiences almost no reasonable idea of what autism actually is. Being the first-ever movie about autism put it in the spotlight, but it also ensured that Dustin Hoffman’s character would be the most simplistic, audience-friendly, easy-to-grasp person with the condition that anyone is likely to see. The more impressive, artfully done portrayal of autism on film debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival last week, in the form of Sam Fleischner’s Stand Clear of the Closing Doors.
Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez) is a teenager in Queens afflicted with what doctors today call ASD – an autism spectrum disorder, which can include the many flavors of autism as well as Asperger’s Syndrome and other related conditions. It’s strongly implied that his mother Mariana (Andrea Suarez Paz) is in the country illegally, and as such she can’t get him into a specialized school even if she could afford it – which she can’t, because Ricky’s father is getting shafted out of his pay while working construction. One day his sister Carla (Azul Zorrilla) doesn’t pick him up at school and he wanders onto the subway, whereby he experiences Manhattan in his own unique way while his family agonizes over the fact that he’s gone missing.
ASD conditions are best described as social disorders; the most common symptoms are an inability to properly interact with other people. Fleischner captures this by occasionally taking the audience within Ricky’s head, where his thoughts aren’t quite nonsense, but they clearly only make complete sense to Ricky himself. At the same time, unique camera angles are also chosen, to show the ways that Ricky can fixate on unusual or seemingly random details of life. The movie was partially funded via Kickstarter, which makes the use of these angles in actual New York subway locations all the more impressive: movies almost never go inside the MTA system since the personnel are impossible to wrangle on a crowd-funded budget.
There are background actors and extras that one could quibble with (possibly non-professionals whose presence in the film is due to their Kickstarter donations), but the only character which holds this film back from being great is Carla. She’s almost comically self-involved, seemingly clueless as to the sort of problems that her little brother is having, to the point of caricature. The filmmakers deserve credit for making her acting out related to the absence of her father, and Zorilla is a decent actress for the role, but those issues only mitigate the unbelievability of the character.
Even with the Carla character involved, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors is a superb film until the end, where it takes a huge jump over what would easily be the most difficult part of Ricky’s odyssey. So difficult, in fact, that no one with even a basic knowledge of New York City geography or a simple understanding of how bad the NYC subway was flooded during Superstorm Sandy would believe it possible. One almost wonders if the final few scenes of this film take place entirely within Ricky’s head, because that stage of his journey just doesn’t make sense. This film is supposedly based upon a true story, but the ending makes clear that needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Every other aspect of the movie should be respected as the surprising debut of a talented and mature filmmaker.
Originally published for The Tribeca Film Festival April, 2014.