Stand Clear of the Closing Doors
Directed by Sam Fleischner
The Rockaways could be God’s Country. On a clear summer day, the oceanside Queens neighborhood easily embodies an imagined halcyon past—which is exactly how Woody Allen used it in Radio Days. In this film, however, it’s filmed as it stands, a working-class community stripped of sun-soaked sentiment: planes fly noisily overhead, and the streets are so desolate people walk right down the middle of them. Cloudy autumn skies and handheld cameras render grand homes ruinous, like some decaying Boston-Irish suburb; director Fleischner even makes the beach unbeautiful, letting it oscillate instead between ominous and menacing, especially as the film reaches its climax during Superstorm Sandy.
Before that, Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez), a 13-year-old on the autism spectrum, wanders onto the A train at Beach 98th Street while walking home from school—an eerie resemblance to the Avonte Oquendo story, who walked out of his school a year after this movie finished filming—and spends the next several days riding up and down the Eighth Avenue line while a gentle melodrama emerges at home, family strain between mother, father and daughter exposed by Ricky’s disappearance. The scenes on the train are mostly documentary, improvisational, looking like they were shot with hidden cameras. In my notes, I made a comparison to the films of the Safdie Brothers (like Daddy Long Legs), which blend the real texture of street-level NYC life with scripted drama, and sure enough in the end credits I saw Josh Safdie had made a cameo.
Above ground, we get a sense of the difficulty of the immigrant experience, from the mother afraid to call the police because of her legal status to the father who can’t even ask his employers for the wages he’s owed. The city comes together to help: a neighbor guides the Missing postermaking process, and a hobo gives Ricky a banana. (Meanwhile, when they’re finally called, the cops are useless.) The drama often feels predictable, but at least it isn’t hysterical: instead of screaming about Her Baby, Ricky’s mother (a great Andrea Suarez Paz) maintains a steely facade, too frightened of deportation to let her emotions overcome her caution. Instead, mother nature provides the histrionics, the impending storm—not originally part of the story, but one the filmmakers used as it happened—giving the search some serious stakes: no one needs to underscore the urgency of finding the boy when people are boarding up their windows, subway service is suspended, and backhoes are building makeshift dikes along the water.
Opens May 23 at Cinema Village