We don’t take enough time to stop and look around. That’s clear. We’re missing a lot of the good stuff — the artistic patterning in our architecture, the glint of airplanes in sunlight, the blur of a seagull’s wings against a gray sky, the flicker and shine of our own street lights. And while the situation is admittedly dire for a 13-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome lost on the subway, he’s catching the good stuff. He’s watching the shoes of passers-by and openly staring at the break dancers taking over the central aisle of his train instead of deliberately turning away in hopes of sparing a dollar or two.
That’s just one among the many points of social commentary — among them, jabs at public education, socioeconomic splits, the American immigration system — laced into the quietly unfolding Stand Clear of the Closing Doors. The film tells the story of Ricky, a teenage boy on the autism spectrum who can’t remember to lift the toilet seat or eat without someone there to remind him, who gets lost in the bowels of New York City’s train system after his sister fails to pick him up after school. His mother, Mariana, hesitates to go to the police for help with her missing son out of concern that they’ll ask her or her husband for immigration papers they don’t have. Instead, she searches for him, mostly by herself, in his favorite places — Rockaway Beach near their apartment in Queens and the shoe store where he gets enthralled in the study of the fabric and stitching and shape of various shoes for sale.
Exploring the world through the eyes of someone on the autism spectrum lets the film’s director, Sam Fleischner, delve into those overlooked moments of artistry in our daily lives. He works with natural lighting, which colors the film in the gritty, gray palette of New York City at the tail end of autumn, and then, when it intrudes three-quarters of the way through shooting, Hurricane Sandy becomes a part of the film as well. The storm adds a layer of dread that the film would otherwise have missed. Even if Ricky doesn’t fall victim to some form of violence in his prolonged travels through New York’s boroughs and manages to remember to drink enough water and eat enough in the days he’s missing to keep himself alive, there’s worry over what might befall him if he’s not home by the time the storm hits and floods both streets and subway tunnels.
Ricky, played by Jesus Sanchez-Velez, an untrained actor with Asperger’s, sets the artistic tone for the story. It’s a rare glimpse into worlds so many of us miss — those of a person on the autistic spectrum, of the mother of an autistic child, and of an undocumented immigrant desperate to do the best for her son.
Ricky spends most of the film blankly observing the tangle of city life as seen from one of its main modes of transport, leaving his mother, Mariana, played beautifully by Andrea Suarez Paz, to put a face on the emotions that run through the film. Paz’s portrayal would be compelling among any ensemble, but against the backdrop of a sulky teenage daughter and a mostly absent husband, she’s wholly consuming.