IT’S IMPOSSIBLE to watch Sam Fleischner’s richly textured, fully engaging Stand Clear of the Closing Doors without thinking of the terrible story of Avonte Oquendo, the autistic teenager who ran through an open door in his high school—he was always attracted to light, his mother said—and vanished. His remains were discovered three months later in the waters off College Point, New York. Stand Clear premiered in the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, almost half a year before the photos of Oquendo with the words MISSING BOY appeared in every New York subway station. At Tribeca, Fleischner said that he had been inspired by many stories of kids on the autism spectrum who wandered off from school or their homes. Some of those stories ended badly, some didn’t. Without giving the ending of the film away, I can say that although I often feared for the life of the protagonist, a thirteen-year-old Mexican boy named Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez), I also believed throughout that he would survive. Wah Do Dem (2009), the brilliant debut feature which Fleischner codirected with Ben Chace, is about a guy who gets lost in Jamaica without a cent or a cell phone and emerges with a recalibrated consciousness from his dangerous Odyssey.
The axiom that Richard Linklater wrote in the diary he kept during the making of Slacker (1991)—that he wanted his films to be “locked in with the time and place of their making”—applies to Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, which is set in the eclectic community of Rockaway, New York, where Fleischner lives, and in the New York City subway system, which, depicted partly through the eyes of an imaginative, differently abled boy, is both ordinary and surreal. Ricky follows a man whose jacket is decorated with what the boy believes is a magical symbol—a water serpent swallowing its tail—up the stairs to the A train, and, because he doesn’t know the name of his stop, gets lost for a week, growing increasingly despondent and even delusional from thirst and hunger. His fellow passengers for the most part seem perfectly nice, but they either fail to notice his plight or don’t want to get involved or, if they are homeless, assume he is too.
Ricky’s journey is crosscut with that of his mother Mariana (Andrea Suarez Paz), who at first searches for him alone. Mariana is afraid to tell the police because the family is undocumented. Her husband, Ricardo Sr. (Tenoch Huerta) is a day laborer, working “upstate”; if he leaves his job, he’ll never get it back. Ricky’s older sister Carla (Azul Zorilla) is so consumed with guilt—she left Ricky alone because she wanted to hang with her friends—that she’s almost useless. The only support Mariana gets is from Carmen (Marsha Stephanie Blake), the manager of the local sneaker store, who helps her make LOST BOY posters and then convinces her to go to the police.
The performances in the lead roles are all so good that I hesitate to single anyone out, but Suarez Paz, an aspiring actor whom Fleischer discovered in the neighborhood, is exceptionally strong and nuanced, and Sanchez-Velez, a thirteen-year-old with Asperger syndrome, uses his own experience to evoke Ricky’s unpredictable emotional changes and the mystery of his inner life. Rose Lichter-Marck and Micah Bloomberg’s script gives the film an excellent spine, strong enough to allow Fleischner to fill it with wonderful cameo performances, some planned in advance, some improvised, and some simply found objects. Large-format cameras were used throughout so that everyone in the subways and on the street knew that they were being filmed. (Fleischner believes it is unethical to use hidden cameras to “steal” shots of people.)
What makes Stand Clear of the Closing Doors an exceptional film was what movie contracts term an “act of God.” During what was meant to be the last week of shooting, Hurricane Sandy struck, flooding the Rockaway neighborhood and destroying Fleischner’s own house. Production was suspended and the movie had to be rejiggered. But in the days leading up to the storm, Fleischner got some amazing footage of the beach and the turbulent surf and menacing sky. There is a chilling moment in the subway when we hear the announcement over the loudspeaker that the MTA is suspending service and everyone must leave the trains by 7 PM. Ricky sits alone on the suddenly emptied platform. In the distance he sees the apparition-like figure of the man with the water serpent symbol on his jacket. The man walks to the end of the platform and disappears into the tunnel. Ricky follows him into the darkness, toward the sound of the rushing water, and toward the light.
Stand Clear of the Closing Doors opens Friday, May 23 in New York.