Films attempting to capture the internals of point of view are often rendered through abstract visuals that acknowledge the impossibility of plumbing another’s soul. But in Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, director Sam Fleischner matter-of-factly relates the story of an autistic boy, Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez), through a series of shots that alternately show us the boy as others see him, and how those others appear through his eyes. It’s as disarmingly simple as it sounds, and incredibly effective as a device for empathy. Fleischner doesn’t pummel Ricky with any of the condescendingly “noble” platitudes that we might expect of a film about a mentally impaired person. We’re simply presented a person in trouble, and we’re allowed to recognize his problems as extreme embodiments of universal issues of terror, confusion, and loneliness.
One morning, Ricky wanders away from school, and his home in Rockaway Beach, Queens with his mother (Andrea Suarez Paz) and sister (Azul Zorrilla), and rides the subway for days that feel like an eternity. Unable to care for himself, and unsentimentally understood by Fleischner to be a burden on his struggling family, particularly his illegal Mexican-immigrant mother, Ricky literally and figuratively drifts in and out of fugue states triggered by hunger, lack of sleep, and the vast new reams of aural/visual stimulation. In one particularly striking shot, a subway car travels through a tunnel and we see only the vehicle’s isolated rainbow-colored lights, which links up to an earlier scene in which Ricky’s sister discovers a spiral illustration in her brother’s room that resembles a portal. Does Ricky yearn for escape from his tunnel-vision state of remove? Does he seek transcendence that paves the way for the kind of human communication that many are lucky enough to take for granted, or is he numbly taking things in? We don’t know, and, most crucially, we’re allowed to understand the intense pain his family feels toward this mystery. One of the great cruelties of autism, like Alzheimer’s, is that people are often denied the certainty of knowing what’s there residing in the corporeal form of their loved one.
Fleischner paints a vivid portrait of New York life, with its dreamers and schemers and working-class people just trying to pay the bills. We see teenagers dancing in impressive sync on the subway. We see a homeless man who grasps Ricky’s pain and gives the child a banana in a moment of startling tenderness. We vividly feel the texture of the place, in all its bricks and beams and beaches, in the tatters that will soon be left over from Hurricane Sandy. We see these things, and we feel them, and we hope that Ricky, who eventually finds his way home in an ending that pointedly does nothing to dispel the tension that charges his family’s imperiled life, can grasp just a little bit of the love, or even of the embitterment, that he commands.