Sunday, August 3, 2014

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors

Hurricane Sandy photos of the floodwaters in the NY subway, October 29, 2012

STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS      B+                       
USA  (102 mi)  2013  d:  Sam Fleischner          Official site

While the title doesn’t lend itself to greatness, or even anything out of the ordinary, but this film is anything but ordinary.  Taking a cue from Morris Engel’s groundbreaking film Little Fugitive (1953), which uses a cinéma-vérité documentary style for a fictionalized tale about a 7-year old child who gets lost overnight at Coney Island, seen from the child’s perspective, Fleischner’s naturalistic style accentuates the worldly conditions surrounding a 13-year old Mexican boy Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez, a non-professional actor with Asperger syndrome) on the autism spectrum who gets lost in the city of New York.  What’s particularly interesting is we’re not just seeing the world as a child would see it, but as an autistic child, where the sensory conditions are clearly heightened.  Inspired by the many stories of kids on the autism spectrum who wandered off from school or their homes, the outcome is often tragic, yet they are an inevitable thread of the world around us, largely unseen where they may as well be perceived as invisible, especially a child of color who is all but ignored.  Ricky spends most of his time quietly alone, never uttering a word to anyone, drawing pictures of strange and mysterious creatures, even as he lives with his family near the beach of Far Rockaway, Queens, where his mother Mariana (Andrea Suarez Paz) is a house cleaner, his father Ricardo Sr. (Tenoch Huerta Mejía) is away from the home on construction jobs, while his 15-year old sister Carla (Azul Zorrilla) shows little understanding for her brother’s problems, feeling overburdened, growing easily irritated and impatient with always having to deal with him, and is more concerned with her own teenage life.  When she decides to go shopping and “forgets” to pick him up from school one day to walk him home, she believes it’s no big deal, that he’s old enough to get home on his own, but when phone attempts fail, his mother freaks out, knowing he’s all alone out there with nobody to help him.  Unfortunately, when Carla doesn’t show up, Ricky curiously follows a man with what he perceives is a magical dragon symbol on the back of his jacket heading into the subway, leading him onto an extended odyssey continuously riding the A-train to Manhattan and back, becoming a treacherous journey of survival. 

Because he doesn’t know the name of his subway stop, Ricky remains stuck in a kind of Sisyphean purgatory that takes on a life of its own, endlessly repeating his journey for days on end, where the sounds and sights of this subterranean existence are all too familiar to those that ride the subway, often swarming with people seemingly smashed together on subway platforms, while the screeching noise can be overwhelming at times.  As he sits alone connected to ear plugs, we never know what, if anything, he’s listening to while impromptu jazz music echoes through the corridors of the subway station.  While a hip-hop dance routine is performed inside a subway car, the overall mood is one of utter indifference, as a train ride is transitory, a means of getting from one place to another, a temporary inconvenience in terms of a loss of time, where people routinely avoid eye contact or speaking to strangers.  Lost in thought, the film takes on an abstract mosaic of impressionist images, where seen out the window of the front car, upcoming lights are continually changing shape, becoming energy fields that tap into the subconscious, while above ground buildings and roads whiz by instantaneously.  As time goes on, Ricky’s disassociation only grows, becoming positively heartbreaking when we realize he has no means to eat or drink, and each time he attempts to use the subway rest rooms they are chain locked at night, leaving him in a perilous predicament where he’s forced to urinate on himself, one of the few times fellow passengers actually acknowledge his existence, as they further taunt and humiliate him.  While you’d think a train employee would notice him, as the smell alone ought to attract attention, but he is surprisingly never rescued by anyone and instead completely ignored.  He is able to find an unused, half-empty water bottle, and even some small change enough to purchase a bag of potato chips, but after more than a week his state of mind deteriorates and he grows delusional from hunger and thirst, where he begins hallucinating, seeing fellow passengers turn into monsters, where reality shifts into another dimension with sights and sounds routinely altered.  This mental dilemma forces him to fear almost everyone, often seen scurrying away from perceived signs of trouble.     

The only distraction from Ricky’s harrowing journey is a strange fascination with odd shapes and designs, where he can be seen staring at mysterious patterns on the subway walls.  While Ricky’s dilemma is a purely subjective experience, so is that of his family, as his mother searches endlessly for him in all the nearby locations, gaining help from a shoe store saleswoman, Carmen (Marsha Stephanie Blake), where Ricky likes to spend time in the store staring at the different color designs of the shoes.  She helps put up signs with Ricky’s picture on it in the neighborhood and encourages the family to make a police report, despite their undocumented status, but the police are little help, continually finding missing kids that bear no resemblance to Ricky.  By the time Ricardo Sr. shows up, Mariana already thinks the worst, that Ricky may never return home alive.  Their search through the neighborhood is another impressionistic montage of wordless images, while Mariana also reports that he’s missing to his school, where she receives a lecture about how underfunded the school is to help special needs children, suggesting there are schools with specially trained staff that would be a better fit, which is an infuriorating insult under normal circumstances, but emphasizes the indifference Ricky faces, where even his school has little interest in helping him, and now he’s lost and utterly on his own.  Adding to the growing dilemma are reports that Hurricane Sandy is fast approaching, with amazing footage of a ferocious ocean with gigantic waves crashing onto the beach, where an ominous announcement is made over a loudspeaker that no trains will be running after 7 pm due to the anticipated flooding of the subway tunnels.  Once more finding himself abandoned and alone, he sees the fleeting image of the man with the dragon symbol on his jacket, following him to the edge of the platform and into the darkness of the tunnel, even as the audience hears disturbing sounds of onrushing water.  The next day, naturalistic shots of the storm’s aftermath are devastating, like the remnants of a tornado, leaving a path of washed up destruction in its wake.  The actual storm appeared during the final days of shooting, where the dramatic footage adds an apocalyptic edge of doom to the finale, where so much was lost in the destruction, where Ricky’s world comes to resemble the shadowy eye of the storm, a murky existence where real and unreal merge, an oasis of perceived calmness surrounded by indescribable wreckage. 

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