Sam Fleischner’s Stand Clear of the Closing Doors(2013) is a hypnotic, atmospheric exploration of the New York City underground through the eyes of an autistic teenager. It’s also a moody, low-key domestic drama about an immigrant family in Queens dealing with their son going missing in the days leading up to Hurricane Sandy. The impressionistic, plot-less strand of the son, Ricky (played in a first-time role by Jesus Sanchez-Velez, who is actually on the autism spectrum) wandering the subway sometimes feels like an intriguingly-shot short stretched out over too many scenes. The other more conventionally composed half of the film, focusing on Ricky’s mother Mariana (Andrea Suarez Paz), his sister Carla (Azul Zorrilla), and absentee father Ricardo (Tenoch Huerta) consequently feels truncated, with little time to build up their relationships in context to Ricky and his autism, except in broad strokes. The constant vacillation between the two stylistically incongruous narrative threads makes the film feel somewhat insubstantial, despite some audacious on-location camerawork in the NYC subway system and a well tempered sense of apocalyptic buildup as Ricky’s journey turns nightmarish due to exhaustion and lack of food.
The cast conveys a lot in some convincingly exhausted performances (especially Paz in an understated but acute turn as grief-stricken Mariana), while Carla suffers the most as a character, coming off as a caricature of teenage selfishness, though decently played by newcomer Zorrilla. Sanchez-Velez, meanwhile, is impressive in his portrayal of the intense focus and simultaneous vulnerability of Ricky as he goes on his days-long walkabout in the subway. The performance, combined with Fleischner’s liberal use of POV shots, stream of consciousness voice-over and a constant overlay of diegetic music from subway musicians and Ricky’s ubiquitous iPod puts the viewer quite effectively in the mesmerizing headspace of a boy who’s lost by choice. As Mariana’s kindly acquaintance Carmen (Marsha Stephanie Blake) puts it, “he can’t find himself.”
Whether or not Ricky does find himself, or anything, by the end is ambiguous. The use of faux-mystic motifs like the recurring drawings and decals of a dragon swallowing its tail (which Ricky is fascinated by), become, like the approaching hurricane, shallow thematic placeholders for the all-consuming system immigrant families like Ricky’s (it’s hinted at that his parents, slaves to minimum wage labour, are in the country illegally, which makes them petrified of turning to the authorities for help) become consumed in and lost. But New Yorker Fleischner’s film lingers strongest when creating snapshots of the labyrinthine urban system Ricky gets metaphorically and literally swallowed by, creating a strange and indelible sense of transient place fitting of as strange a land as the NYC subway.