Early last October, a 14-year-old boy with autism named Avonte Oquendo ran away from his Queens elementary school. Within several days, his was the most recognizable face in New York, the missing poster bearing his half-smile suddenly as ubiquitous across the five boroughs as the Yankees logo. Avonte’s mother told the police that her son, who was incapable of speech, could navigate the subway system, and his photo was soon taped to support beams in each one of the city’s 468 stations. It’s been roughly four months since Avonte’s remains were found near a Queens waterfront, but his picture can still be found on a few platforms here and there, a reminder of an entire city’s helplessness, a place where everyone is witness to one another but communicative only through tragedy.
A poignant example of life imitating art, Sam Fleischner’s Stand Clear Of The Closing Doors—which premiered at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, well in advance of Avonte’s death—effectively portrays New York City as a cacophonous collision of disparate voices, sidestepping the nightmarish outcome of that child’s story in favor of a different, more enduringly visible disaster.
Ricky is a 13-year-old boy with autism who lives with his older sister and their undocumented Mexican mother in Rockaway Beach. Played by Jesus Sanchez-Velez, a young actor who is himself on the autism spectrum, Ricky is capable enough to attend public school, but sufficiently isolated by his condition that the school sees him as a burden. Ricky’s autism tends to manifest in subtle ways both invisible and socially disruptive—at home he pees on the toilet without remembering to lift the lid, but riding alone on a subway car he’s just another teenager in a hoodie. And the subway is where we spend most of his time, as Ricky becomes enchanted with the dragon illustration on the back of a stranger’s jacket, following him onto the C train and refusing to budge from his seat for days on end.
Cutting between Ricky’s wordlessly sedate ride on the rails and his mother’s increasingly panicked search for her son, Fleischner avoids broad sentimentality by keeping a steady distance from his characters. Even once Ricky’s absent father (Miss Bala star Tenoch Huerta Mejía) enters the picture, Stand Clear Of The Closing Doors stubbornly resists a sense of intimacy, the film determined to express how communication can always be inclusive, even in whispers. Fleischner, a director whose refusal to conform to the gaudy norms of contemporary indie cinema is evident in both his previous feature (Wah Do Dem) and his music-video work, shows a nuanced respect for the circumstances of people on the autism spectrum while still using Ricky’s condition as a conduit for exploring how blithely people overlap in modern mega-cities. Relying on dour natural light and candid footage of New Yorkers in action, Stand Clear Of The Closing Doors is by no means a conventionally attractive movie, but is most effective when eschewing convention altogether (the film is at its weakest during the familiar—if still wrenching—scenes of Ricky’s mother trawling the beach in search of her son and working for a faceless white guy on a juice cleanse).
A touch too stilted and thin to prove truly essential, Stand Clear Of The Closing Doors may have been more resonant had it abandoned traditional narrative tropes altogether, but there’s great value in how the film recognizes cinema’s ability to make sense of the overwhelming noise of the subway system, and vice versa. If public transportation blurs the lines between public and private space by default, the movies do so by design. There’s a comfort in just sitting there, in letting the system do its work and take you where you need to be, if only we didn’t rely on tragedies to translate the mess of signs and symbols that keep us alone together in the darkness.