Heartland Film Fest 2013 reviews: Take one



Stand Clear of the Closing Doors
★★★★ (out of five)

As part of his Kickstarter proposal for funds, director Sam Fleischner said, "In November 2009, I read an article about a 13-year-old boy with Autism who ran away from home, riding the NYC subway for 11 days. The story haunted me and a year later I reached out to meet the family in hopes of learning more about their experience. I had questions about how a child in need of help goes unnoticed in the most public of places, and what happens to an illegal immigrant family whose son goes missing in their adopted country. With the cooperation of the family, I spent the next two years writing the screenplay, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors. What compelled me to re-tell this story in a narrative context was how perfectly it lent itself to a natural synthesis of allegory and realism. Ricky, an 8th-grader studying mythology, is suddenly on an odyssey of his own."

A major part of both the real incident and Fleischner's film takes place on the subway, a constantly moving cross-section of humanity. The other major location is Rockaway Beach, Queens, the working class community where the family lives. The story happens in the days surrounding Halloween, with costumed travelers adding an otherworldly note to the already rich subway scenes. As if the subject and settings weren't colorful enough, nature contributed more drama when Hurricane Sandy hit land during the making of the movie. Fleischner simply incorporated the storm into the story.

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors maintains a realistic feel as it shifts between Rockaway Beach and the subway, recreating the extraordinary occurrence in the lives of young Ricky (played by Jesus Valdez, a non-professional with Asperger syndrome); his mother Mariana (Andrea Suarez), who works as a maid; teenage sister Carla (Azul Zorrilla), who routinely helps her brother get to and from school (while periodically grumbling about her duties); and father Ricardo Sr. (Tenoch Huerta Mejia), whose out-of-town job is a source of marital tension.

Rose Lichter-Marck and Micah Bloomberg's screenplay maintains a down-to-earth feel enhanced by sophomore moviemaker Fleischner's non-showy camera work. The low-key approach adds to the appeal of the film, as do the shifts between the home front, where Mariana, used to blending into the background due her illegal status, must step into a wider world to deal with her son's disappearance; and the subway, where we get to see and hear Ricky's fellow travelers. The mix of the exotic with the mundane on the transit system is mesmerizing; we are privy to snippets of conversations from everyday folks and their more eccentric brethren, while watching hip hop dancers, skilled drummers, costumed party-goers and more. How much of all this does Ricky see?

The subway scenes could have drifted into Fellini Land were it not for the steadying force of Sam Fleischner and the naturalistic, convincing performances from the fine cast. Ricky's odyssey is his family's nightmare, and Stand Clear of the Closing Doors presents all of it with clear eyes and compassion. - Ed Johnson-Ott

Blood Brother

The kind of movie that makes you wonder just what the hell you're doing sitting there watching a movie. Twenty-something graphic designer Rocky Braat left his hometown of Pittsburgh for a sort of walkabout that included a stop at a home for HIV-infected orphans and women in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It was to be a temporary volunteer gig, but after moving on to do a typical sightseeing trip, he decided that he needed to be in a place where he felt he could do the most good. He's been working at the home - save for a few visa hiccups - ever since. His best friend in the States, who happens to be an excellent documentarian, made Blood Brother in order to understand why his friend created a new life for himself. The results couldn't be much more profound, not least in the way that we see Rocky trying to figure out how he can best avoid what might be called compassion fatigue. His solution is to inextricably involve himself in Indian culture via marriage, though he doesn't find it easy to convince his new neighbors that he's not just a tourist trying to find himself. Winner of the 2013 Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award. - Scott Shoger


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