Still raw in many minds here in the US, Hurricane Sandy and the subsequent destruction that followed in its wake has not been a topic touched upon often. Neither many documentaries nor fiction features have taken to this subject to weave their yarns, be it the straight forward fact picture or the more narratively driven character study. However, that’s about to change as one of the year’s best pictures so far not only touches directly upon this horrible tragedy, but does so while looking at what it’s like to be a youth dealing not only with one’s daily life, but that very life with autism.
Entitled Stand Clear Of The Closing Doors, the film is the second feature from director Sam Fleischner, and is one of 2014’s best pictures up to this point. The film introduces us to a youngster named Ricky, who is living with autism. Based on a true story set in Queens, New York, just prior to the events of Hurricane Sandy, the film finds Ricky at a bleak point in his life. With his father ostensibly out of his life, or at least in any meaningful way, he has been skipping class, and has been getting harsher and harsher punishment for it at school. Then, just days before the pending super storm, the young guy decides to set off on his own by taking to the subway system, a place where he becomes enthralled by all the sounds and goings on, the symphony that is the urban landscape. When his mother sets out to find her young son, the film turns from a character study into something far greater, and far more suspenseful and thematically engrossing. Think Keane but from the child’s perspective, Stand Clear was altered during the shoot when Sandy hit, and thankfully so as what we have now is a broodingly hypnotic and mesmerizing “New York film.”
And in that comes the film’s greatest attribute. Only Fleischner’s second feature, the film is as assured and entrancing a sophomore effort as you’re bound to find. A pure, emotionally driven love letter to the forgotten bits of New York, the film’s melancholic tone, with a sense of doom ever approaching thanks to the aforementioned hurricane, is palpable and adds a great sense of urgency to an already suspenseful motion picture. Fleischner’s camera is naturalistic and ever present, turning bits of seemingly mundane conversations into just another instrument in the orchestra of urban New York. Gorgeous photography helps paint this deeply intimate and emotionally raw motion picture, with Fleischner’s camera seemingly split between two worlds. For the sequences involving Ricky’s mother and sister, the film is starkly raw and muted. Then, enter Ricky’s odyssey through the Rockaways, and the film, while still naturalistic, takes a dreamier tone and aesthetic, using some of the year’s greatest sound design turning this into as much a sense-focused experience as it is a narrative or thematic.
Beautifully cinematic while never turning into histrionic bombast, Stand Clear Of The Closing Doors is, however, not driven by a director at the height of his powers, but the film’s breathtaking lead performance. A non-actor himself dealing with Asperger Syndrome, the film stars Jesus Valez, giving one of the better non-professional performances in quite some time. As natural as they come, the performance is steeped in loneliness and isolation and ultimately is the emotional driver that this picture truly needs to thrive. Opposite him is Azul Zorrilla as his sister, herself giving one of the films more melancholic performances. There are a handful of beats here involving her and a friend that are as brutally honest as they come, and a few interchanges with her mother, played beautifully by Andrea Suarez that are just as moving as anything the film has to offer, save maybe for its gut punch of a final shot. The family’s patriarch, played by Tenoch Huerta Mejia is present for a snippet of the film, but not enough to really make for much of an impact.
A film of many stripes, Fleischner’s sophomore effort is one of the year’s best films so far. At times devastating familial drama, at others a haunting look at isolation within the urban machine, this utterly breathless love letter to the forgotten parts of New York is an ever involving drama of the heighest regard. Dreamlike and emotionally driven, this is a film not to be missed, as it arrives in theaters this weekend.