Sunday, April 3, 2016

Off the Rails (2016) Full Frame 2016

Darius McCollum loves trains and buses. He loves them so much that he has been arrested around 30 times for driving off in them and making all the stops on a certain route. He is so good at driving them that it’s been commented that the lines run better when he is in control. The problem is he’s not part of the MTA so many times after he takes a bus or train he ends up arrested and thrown in jail. As a result of his passion Darius has spent almost 20 years behind bars.

Off The Rails is a super portrait of Darius, his life, his struggles with Asperger’s Syndrome and his troubles with the law. It’s a film that humanizes Darius, a regular fixture in New York City area news outlets, and forces us to consider how wrong the system has been treating this poor guy.

That the film works as well as it does is thanks to Darius himself. He is a charming gentleman who speaks well, can tell his story in such a way that you hang on his every word. We come to understand why he does what he does, and our heart breaks for him since it’s clear that he really shouldn’t be in jail and that he should have been part of the system and not outside of it. Here is a guy who loves driving trains and buses and would be a perfect driver, but because of his arrests he can’t do what he loves. Worse because he is effectively making the MTA look bad there was no way they would ever “legitimize” Darius by giving him a job.

To be honest as intriguing as Darius is the film wouldn’t sustain it’s 90 minute length if it didn’t delve into more than just our hero. Thankfully the film does do more by giving us an eye opening look at how someone with Asperger’s navigates through life. How does a man obsessed with something manage to make sense of the larger world? How does the world react to that obsession? Off The Rails explores those questions and finds that the answers are not to the benefit of either party. Watching the film I was forced to really consider how we as a society are handling those with Asperger’s.

I really like this film a great deal. It is one of the great unexpected surprises of the year so far. Sitting down to watch the film the first time (I’ve seen it multiple times now) I was just going to check out the film to see how it is and then go back and actually watch it down the road. That didn’t happen. From the first few minutes of the film I was hooked and I found myself drawn into Darius’s story. Before I knew what was happening I had made it all the way through the film without a single note. Realizing I’d have to watch it again to make some notes I sat down and watched it again…and a short time later I watched it again just because. The fact that I watched any film more than once says volumes, and the fact that I made a third pass through says even more.

This is a great film. It’s an intriguing portrait of the New York Transit system, an eye opening look at society and Asperger’s and a great portrait of a man caught between a rock and a hard place, whose life has been turned upside down by a love of trains. An absolute must see with as high a recommendation as I can give.

World Premiere April 7 at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, NC. The film will roll-out on the festival circuit with stops at Sarasota Film Festival April 9 & 10, RiverRun Film Festival in Winston-Salem, NC, April 10 & 11, Newport Beach Film Festival in California, April 21-28, and Hot Docs Canadian Documentary Film Festival in Toronto in May 4.

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