Sam Fleischner’s terrifically conceived and executed sophomore feature, “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors,” alternates between an autistic 13-year-old boy’s extended walkabout in the New York subway system and his undocumented Mexican family’s frantic search for him above ground. Having an autistic protagonist (played by Jesus Valez, a non-professional with Asperger syndrome) creates a uniquely fluid relationship between the central character and the diverse flow of activity around him, which he sometimes connects with, sometimes reacts against and often ignores, lost in his own mental meanderings. Consistently fascinating and suspenseful, “Doors” should open a few in niche play.
The film opens on a typical day for this family living in Rockaway Beach, Queens. Ricky (Valez) cuts school, where he barely finds acceptance, his special needs left unaddressed by the administration. Teenage sister Carla (Azul Zorrilla) picks him up after classes and sees him home, while mother Mariana (Andrea Suarez, excellent) serves as maid for an upscale apartment dweller. Father Ricardo Sr. (Tenoch Huerta Mejia) is off on an out-of-town job for most of the film, apparently a frequent state of affairs.
The next day, Carla fails retrieve Ricky, who wanders off, following a man with a dragon decal on his jacket and trailing him onto the subway. Passengers’ idle chatter swirls around the lost child, scripters Rose Lichter-Marck and Micah Bloomberg proving skilled at offbeat, authentic-sounding dialogue. Snatches of conversation snag viewers’ attention as one colorful raconteur launches into the story of Louis the Tailor, or other riders debate the truth of superstitions, even as the self-absorbed Ricky largely remains non-interactive. With a self/others dynamic reminiscent of the famous Coney Island beach sequence in Morris Engel’s landmark 1953 indie “Little Fugitive,” the subway’s usual breakdancers, doomsday preachers and African-garbed drummers pass by on the edges of Ricky’s consciousness.
Fleischner often conveys Ricky’s peregrinations in dreamlike ways, filming his image reflected in windows while he retreats into his own musings, or showing him wandering through stations, fascinated by patterns etched in tiles or formed by intertwined pipes. In hallucinatory mode, figures sometimes appear or disappear, and the man with the dragon-decorated jacket lures Ricky in and out of cars and tunnels.
As days pass, Ricky visibly declines, drinking nothing until a water bottle rolls to his feet, eating nothing until a banana is given to him by a homeless man (the only one to recognize his plight). His clothes getting dirtier, and he wets himself when he can’t find an unlocked men’s room.
Meanwhile, in faraway Rockaway, Ricky’s family unravels under the strain of uncertainty, Mariana blaming Carla for Ricky’s disappearance and her husband for not being available to help. Yet the search for Ricky also forces Mariana outside the self-protective confines of her illegal status. She haunts the beaches that Ricky loved, studies his drawings of sea monsters and dragons, and forms a fast friendship with Carmen (Marsha Stephanie Blake), a saleswoman in a shoestore where Ricky hung out, who helps Mariana post missing-person flyers and accompanies her to the police station.
Soon Hurricane Sandy approaches, many residents overheard pooh-poohing the serious warnings and evacuation plans blanketing the news. Helmer Fleischner, whose own home was destroyed, refashioned his film mid-shoot to incorporate the superstorm, the buckled remains of the wooden boardwalk dotting Rockaway Beach backgrounding the film’s cathartic climax.