If you are reading this to get some sense of what families go through with a family member who is autistic, and you’d like a more cinematic representation of the same thing, you could do a lot worse than watch Stand Clear of the Closing Doors (I can only assume it was released in Britain under the title Mind the Gap).
In brief, it’s about a 13-year-old autistic kid who runs away from home, spending at least 3 days foraging around the New York City subway system as Hurricane Sandy prepares to smash into the boroughs. Sometimes filmmakers of such movies tell the press that they hope their film gets appreciation from families with autistic kids. So I’m here to say: yes. I liked it. They got it right.
Ricky, the 13-year-old, goes missing because his sister dropped the ball when she was supposed to be watching him. The teenage girl didn’t feel like dealing with her autistic brother that day. Ricky’s mother becomes furious with her daughter; a day later, the girl asks her mom, “When are you going to forgive me?” and her mom snaps, “When we find your brother.” All this sent chills down my spine, but in a good way, in that way where you’re happy some filmmaker gets you. Wifey and I are always thinking about how many obligations we’re putting on Dar’s brother, particularly after we’re cold dead in the ground. We like to think there will be enough money that Dar’s brother can just put his brother away in some facility, but ultimately we probably can’t stop his brother from blowing that in Vegas or something. So we’re sowing the seeds of love, we hope. Already at the age of 3, Dar’s brother says “I don’t want Dar touching me!” “I don’t want Dar in my room!” This is my long way of saying that the film’s sibling relationship felt both close to home and true to life.
The mom freakout hit even closer. She was going nuts, and the cops weren’t helping, refusing to classify Ricky as a missing person at first. Only in consultation with a family friend did it occur to the mom to start putting up “MISSING” signs. I get that; I’m sure I’m also going to start forgetting obvious things the day Dar goes missing. In our case, we do have a GPS on him which would supposedly help in this crazy situation, but still.
I loved how the estranged dad didn’t take Ricky’s disappearance seriously at first, then finally showed up only to be almost equally as useless. The tension between him and the mom was beautifully played, exquisitely written and performed. I don’t know how many of you parents of neuro-typical kids worry about your spouse leaving you and taking the kids. Wifey and I have laughed about this; divorcing and taking Dar would be an obvious blessing-curse; divorcing and forcing the other to take Dar would be immorally cruel (as the Dad in this movie apparently is); in this crazy situation, the biggest balm we have is each other (and Dar’s brother). We are not going ANYwhere from each other, making us all the more fascinated by poignant portrayals of couples who did otherwise.
Dar alone on a subway for days? I can’t imagine him doing this at any age. He would do a lot worse than pee on himself, as we see in the movie. He would be like the red balloon in the 1956 34-minute film The Red Balloon (one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite films), floating from urban thing to urban thing, only miraculously surviving being popped. And in some ways Ricky is like this in Stand Clear of the Closing Doors. I held my breath every time he walked in and out of subway cars. I loved how the movie alternated from his somewhat hallucinogenic views of the subway environs to his mom’s hard-edged realism. I also like that the entire family was Latino and frequently speaking Spanish; we don’t have enough American-set movies like that.
I can’t write this without noting that they cast a real person on the spectrum, Jesus Sanchez-Velez. Yes, he was convincing, without over-acting in any way. In the class I teach on cinematic diversity, this comes up every semester: should real disabled people play disabled people? Why get Marlee Matlin to play a deaf person when Meryl Streep is right there? Are we giving Oscars to the “abled” – like last year, Julianne Moore as a woman with Alzheimer’s and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking – because they’re “stooping to conquer”? Anyway there’s no right answer, but I liked seeing R.J. Mitte all those years as Walter White’s son on Breaking Bad, and I liked Sanchez-Velez in this, even if both of them had to exaggerate their condition slightly. The truth is I didn’t know Sanchez-Velez was disabled when I saw the movie, and I don’t apply that as a litmus test. In retrospect, I appreciate the filmmakers’ insistence to make that casting decision.
How do we speak for the voiceless? In many ways, this question has stood in the background of all human wisdom, from Confucius to Plato to Avicenna to St. Francis to Gandhi to Martin Luther King. Perhaps it’s one reason “normal” people are so struck by autism, because the problem literalizes the metaphor. How do we speak for non-verbal people like my son, like Ricky in this movie? I don’t think there’s a universal answer, but Stand Clear of the Closing Doors provides perspicacious whispers and suggestions, and that’s more than enough.