Ask anyone who grinds through the New York subway each day: The worst words in the world might be "It's showtime!" That means riders are about to be treated/subjected to public break dancing. Once the boombox starts bumping and the performers start whipping themselves around, subway riders find themselves exploring the limits of the public trust and don't-bug-me imperturbability that makes city life possible. Can you still pretend to be fully absorbed in whatever you're eyeballing on your phone when dancers' sneakers keep kicking just inches from your skull?
What a difference a camera makes. In the context of Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, a narrative feature that plays like an impressionistic record of the subway experience circa exactly right now, those dancers prove a wonder — never mind that they're not very good. Watching it from a theater seat, where you're primed for an aesthetic experience, the performance proves fascinating, even beautiful, rather than an annoyance.
The film's story concerns an autistic teenager's days spent underground, riding the trains. His mother (Andrea Suarez Paz), in a sharply sketched Rockaway Beach, agonizes over whether to call the cops and report him missing — and risk the powers that be nosing into the family's immigration status. The father, meanwhile, is away on a job, and leaving it early to come search New York City would mean grave financial hardship. Looming over all of this is an approaching storm — while the film's great scenes of train life capture what feels like this very week, the film is set in October 2012, with Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the city in general and the Rockaways in tragic particular.
For all that, this extraordinary film — directed by Sam Fleischner — is mostly about looking and being. Twenty-five minutes in, when Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez) first ditches Queens for the long schlep into Columbus Circle, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors becomes dedicated to showing us everything millions of people glance at each day but don't actually regard: the brilliant play of light and shadow on the windows of the subway; the way the headlamps, as you space out, seem to flatten to colored wafers; the heaving clamor of trains running parallel and then peeling away in the dark, reflecting each other in their screaming tonnage.
In the opening moments, Ricky's mother snaps at her kids for not having bothered to turn on lamps in the living room as evening comes on. "You're both so focused on your screens, you don't even notice there's no light!" she carps. The same goes for the passengers slumped about Ricky on his aimless, multiday trek, mostly poking at their phones, and possibly for subway riders who turn out to see this. That it's such a steady thrill to watch humdrum train life through Ricky's eyes underscores one of the ironies of our age: Patient, observational film demands you surrender to it, that you keep your phone in your pocket, which means that movie theaters now sometimes offer a more unmediated look at the world than modern life itself.
Sanchez-Velez, as the kid, is bleary-eyed and appealingly tousled, even after a departing passenger dumps soda on his head. It's unclear for most of the film whether Ricky considers himself lost. In this new New York, the danger he faces isn't New Yorkers — it's his own inability to take care of himself, which is movingly established in the opening scenes: He has to be told when to eat; his sister must walk him home from school; he gets caught up in the flutter of seagulls or the glint of distant airplanes rather than paying attention to what's right in front of him.
He gets anxious only late in his ride, when he awakens on a train filled with Halloween monsters. By this point, the transit bliss-out of the long middle section has yielded to the tensions of the conclusion: The storm's coming, and his parents are dashing through train stations trying to find him. Worse, he's eaten only a bag of Utz potato chips in the several days he's been gone.
The movie is the kind likely to endure, maybe to be more valuable to future generations than to us: It's full of what exactly this moment is like. Still, the story bears the weight of a second contemporary tragedy, this one not intended by the filmmakers. In January, the remains of Avonte Oquendo were discovered on the banks of the East River. Oquendo, an autistic teen from Queens, had been missing since October.
What exactly happened to Oquendo remains a mystery, but the film feels charged by it, maybe even made impossible by it: Even as I was seduced by the life and lights of Ricky's journey, I couldn't tamp down that hope that, in real life, one of the New Yorkers familiar with Oquendo would alert the cops, the MTA, or even Ricky himself to what's going on. That's heartening: The actual New York might now be better than the one on a screen.