STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS (Sam Fleischner, 2013)
22 East 12th St. between University Pl. & Fifth Ave.
Opens Friday, May 23
It’s a sight New Yorkers see all too often: flyers on the streets and in the subways seeking help in finding a missing man, woman, or child, who is often autistic. Sometimes they have happy endings, like when fourteen-year-old Eliceo Cortez returned to his mother’s arms in Brooklyn. But other times, the search ends in tragedy, as when the remains of fourteen-year-old Avonte Oquendo were discovered in the East River. In his solo narrative feature debut, director Sam Fleischner tells the compelling story of thirteen-year-old Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez), a boy with Asperger syndrome who wanders away one day after school, riding the subways while his mother, Mariana (Andrea Suarez Paz), desperately but calmly tries to find him. Mariana’s husband, Ricardo Sr. (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), is an illegal immigrant working on a job upstate, so he can’t come down to help, and she is hesitant to deal with the police, for obvious reasons. Meanwhile, her relationship with her teenage daughter, Carla (Azul Zorrilla), is strained because it was Carla’s job to pick up Ricky from a school that believes he would be better off in a special program elsewhere. Fleischner combines elements of his codirecting feature debut, Wah Do Dem, a fish-out-of-water tale about a Brooklyn musician who finds a new life in Jamaica, with Below the Brain, his visually stirring documentary about Brooklyn’s West Indian American Day Carnival, in the lovingly rhythmic, poetically paced Stand Clear of the Closing Doors. Fleischner cuts between Mariana’s New York City, where she has to continue to work as a cleaning woman for wealthy families even as her boy is missing, and Ricky’s skewed yet beautiful view of a city, both inviting and frightening, that he is lost in.
Despite the subject matter — a dedicated and loving mother trying to locate her missing child — the film has a serene, tranquil quality. There are no histrionics, no screaming or crying. There are no heavy political statements about illegal immigration or the flawed school system. Instead, Fleischner keeps things subdued, letting the story play out in a more natural and believable way, even as Hurricane Sandy approaches. (The film was shot on Rockaway Beach, where Fleischner lives; he had to make significant adjustments to incorporate the storm, which he does with a subtle effectiveness.) It’s hard to take your eyes off Sanchez-Velez, who is on the autism spectrum himself, as he meanders underground, making contact with strangers and seeking out food while taking in the sights — and sounds, which are practically a character unto themselves — of New York City. Suarez Paz, who Fleischner found on a crosswalk outside Prospect Park, gives a heartfelt performance as Mariana, maintaining a steadfast composure throughout. Marsha Stephanie Blake (Hurt Village, Queens Boulevard) offers fine support as a caring sneaker-store clerk who befriends Mariana. Written by Rose Lichter-Marck and Micah Bloomberg and wonderfully photographed by Adam Jandrup and Ethan Palmer, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors is a small gem of a film, a kind of Little Fugitive for the twenty-first century. And you’ll never look at a missing-child flyer the same way again. Winner of a Special Jury Prize at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors opens May 23 at Cinema Village, with Fleischner participating in Q&As following the 7:00 screenings on Friday and Saturday night.