Trite material can often be reworked to highlight qualities undernourished from their initial points of inspiration. Stand Clear of the Closing Doors is the type of film that eschews the trappings of its banal subject matter, whereby a strong directorial vision and socially-conscious backdrop serves to revitalize the mundane. Yet, despite the film’s ability to shy from convention, Sam Fleischner’s purposeful misdirection leads to some particularly unpleasant moments that border on exploitation.
Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez) suffers from autism. He’s a young boy on the verge of adolescence. His sister isn’t especially fond of having to travel with her brother; the film shows the already visible strain of a teenage girl forced to act as caretaker, effectively stunting her own adolescent growth. Meanwhile, their mother works as a housekeeper while their father travels as a laborer. They’re a working class troupe, burdened by fiscal strain, an off-kilter work/family life, and limited social mobility.
The film’s narrative sees Ricky riding the New York City train line for days, navigating the rails with lumbering reserve and decreasing mental facilities. The family’s ongoing search for their son is limited due to their own fears: both mother and father are illegal immigrants. Despite the politically ripe nature of the material, writers Rose Lichter-Marck and Micah Bloomberg underplay that perspective. Rather, the film explores the increasingly despondent imagery associated with Ricky’s illness. But while this proves to be an initially captivating aspect – a sequence where Ricky stands at the pilot front of a train provides the audience with an immersive experience inside Ricky’s hazy and consistently adjustable worldview – the film becomes overwrought, repetitive, and exhausting in its deployment of this imagery. The tiresome perspective mounts to something bordering exploitative, where Ricky’s decaying mental and physical state proves too uncomfortable to bare. This is compounded by a domestic drama that relinquishes the reigns of the film’s natural rooting, more often than not steering the film toward hyper melodrama and histrionics.
Fleischner is a commendable talent, particularly in his ability to see past the politics of the screenplay into creating something much more universal. But he elevates the material to the point that it escapes his grasp and begins to resemble the convention that he structured his film against. The efforts he places to understand his character’s disorder feel strained and are amplified in its ugliness by the gray visual composition of his frames. The picture largely takes place on trains and subways, but even when the picture escapes those confines it remains resolutely gray - New York City has never appeared so nauseating and toxic. Stand Clear of the Closing Doors has its merits in how it balances its political context with that of its narrative ambition, but the overarching accomplishment is hindered by a feeling that the film leaves its audience in a state of bewildered gloom.