There’s a sequence in Stand Clear Of The Closing Doors where the camera, acting like an ordinary subway passenger, stands by and watches three teenagers perform an entire breakdancing routine for whatever loose change the act can get them. It’s tempting to say the scene stops the movie in its tracks, but in fact, such scenes are the movie. Director Sam Fleischner, working from a bare-bones script by Rose Lichter-Marck and Micah Bloomberg, has ostensibly made a missing-child drama, but the usual tension that comes from the search evaporates almost immediately—not because the child’s family doesn’t care, but because the film has other priorities. Time and place mean as much to Fleischner as human drama—or, put another way, the context for human drama means more to Stand Clear Of The Closing Doors than it would in most conventional missing-child thrillers. Fleischner is willing to sacrifice a little tension to get the details right.
Set in Rockaway Beach, Queens in the days before Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast—an accident of timing that serves this movie so well, it almost feels scripted—Stand Clear shines its modest light on a neglected corner of city life. Mariana (Andrea Suarez Paz) lives hand to mouth in a small apartment with her teenage children, eldest daughter Carla (Azul Zorrilla) and autistic son Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez, who has Aspergers). She spends her days cleaning a rich hippie’s home. (Fleischner’s contempt for Mariana’s employer is the film’s only clunky note. It’s enough to have her mop up while he’s in the yard meditating, but asking her to clean the juicer is a bit much.) Mariana’s job puts a lot of responsibility on Carla, who has to pick up her brother from school every day, and the one day she shirks her duty, Ricky becomes captivated with the dragon insignia on a stranger’s jacket, and follows him onto the subway.
From there, Stand Clear cuts back and forth between Ricky getting zipped around the city’s byzantine subway system and Mariana fruitlessly pursuing him, all while keeping up at her job to make ends meet. With the kids’ absentee father mostly relegated to a disembodied voice on her cell phone, Mariana, lacking the legal status to demand much from the police, enlists a sympathetic shoe-store clerk (Marsha Stephanie Blake) for help posting flyers, and for emotional support. Meanwhile, as the days pass, Ricky’s situation subtly grows more desperate. He barely scrapes together enough money for a bag of potato chips. He pisses himself. And save for a homeless man who hands him a banana, the only people who do notice him just complain about the smell.
If Fleischner is making any one statement about both Mariana and Ricky’s sides of the story, it’s as regards the city’s indifference to suffering, whether it’s the cops who take the disappearance too lightly, or the subway riders who feel no responsibility to anyone outside their sphere. But Stand Clear Of The Closing Doors doesn’t feel particularly judgmental in either case—it’s more resigned to the way things are. Though it has the dramatic apparatus of fiction, the film unfolds with a documentary-like openness to the world around it: the overheard conversations and half-glimpsed headlines about the upcoming election and “Franken-storm,” the faces and spontaneous dramas of ordinary people on the subway, the rituals of the Catholic church where Mariana attends mass.
At times, Fleischner’s obsession with detail becomes too attenuated; there are so few narrative developments that the film could be longer or considerably shorter without much effect on its rhythm or purpose. Finding a shape for this amassment of observations is a challenge Fleischner doesn’t quite lick, but the overall effect is an impression of Rockaway Beach, subway culture, and an autist’s point of view that a more conventionally constructed film could never achieve. Poor, undocumented families like Mariana’s are as invisible in culture as they are on paper. In its own small way, Stand Clear Of The Closing Doors serves as a corrective.