“Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” – 2013 Busan Film Review

Depending on the city, the use of a transit system can be an indicator of class.  For established metropolises that depend on the automobile, it serves as the last resort of getting from Point A to B.  For others on the rise, it is a privilege to zip along a high-speed, technologically advanced train past a gridlocked road infrastructure that has not kept up with the times.

There are exceptions to this class rule, where a city depends almost entirely on a subterranean ecosystem to shuttle commuters of many nationalities, ages and backgrounds to various stops scattered across a 24-hour-a-day maze of organized chaos and, most of all, unspoken trust.  It is here in New York City’s subway system that Ricky Garcia, an autistic 13-year-old played by Jesus Sanchez-Velez, spends most of his time in “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors.”

The film title takes its name from the automated intercom warning to passengers on the train, and also serves as a metaphor of sorts for Ricky, a son of undocumented Mexican immigrants trying to make ends meet in Rockaway Beach, Queens, while also risking being kicked out of the public education system because of his autism.  Ricky ends up in this real-life labyrinth by following a visual cue into his dreamlike world, and it is here that the some of the best moments of the film occur.  For those unfamiliar with the New York City subway system, the random occurrences that take place inside the rickety moving cars may seem implausible.  For those with even one experience, pretty much every type of event that can happen during a typical commute does, and is portrayed with such an organic ease that one feels like he or she also stepped right onto the train with these strangers.  Some of these moments include the strains of the erhu Chinese stringed instrument wafting into open doors; miniature dogs peeking out of handbags; a random act of kindness from a stranger handing Ricky a banana, sensing that hours of riding on trains has taken a toll on his stomach; and, when Halloween approaches, a sea of revelers in full costume.

Meanwhile, above ground, Ricky’s family frets over his disappearance, but it is a predicament that they approach with caution given their residential status.  As the hours drag on, and the film switches between Ricky’s underground shelter and his family’s one level above, Mother Nature interferes.  When a superstorm approaches New York – filming coincidentally took place when Hurricane Sandy hit the week of Halloween 2012 – Ricky’s estranged parents and apathetic sister become closer.  But as life seemingly becomes easier without Ricky’s presence, the problems that the Garcias face actually multiply, and it is a realization that doesn’t hit them until after the storm has subsided.

Director and Rockaway Beach resident Sam Fleischner has crafted an understated jewel of a film that speaks to the heart of the quintessential New York experience.  The story of the Garcias is one of many that comprise the diversity of the city, yet it contains numerous elements that, deemed banal to some New Yorkers, are actually extraordinary to outsiders.  Rising above it all is a story of a teenager trying to find his way through his world and the complexities of his journey that belie his quest.

“Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” won the Special Jury Prize at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival and screened at the 2013 Busan International Film Festival.  It has been picked up by Oscilloscope Laboratories and will be released in 2014.