'Off the Rails': Film Review

Off The Rails - H 2016
Gemini Pictures
An offbeat, somewhat sad look at compulsive behavior and the government's overreaction to it.

Meet the man who has spent his adult life volunteering for the MTA — and done years of jail time for his service.

The kind of oddball criminal whose exploits guarantee media attention, Darius McCollum will be familiar to some New Yorkers as the tragicomic obsessive who on countless occasions has commandeered public-transit vehicles, doing the job of an MTA worker without getting paid for it. Instead he has spent many years in jail for crimes that, as Adam Irving's Off the Rails sees it, are victimless. Most viewers of this sympathetic doc will feel the same way; and while it has more theatrical potential in NYC than elsewhere, this minor but enjoyable doc should enjoy broader appeal on video.

Making his filmmaking debut, Irving offers plentiful childhood anecdotes about a boy who fell in love with the subway back in the 1970s, when even the city's toughest citizens rode it with caution. By 12, McCollum had spent enough time hanging around subway workers that he was given an official uniform to play with. His subterranean friends would let him do chores for them and go on ride-alongs, where he learned how to drive trains; at 15, a train operator who wanted to visit a girlfriend asked McCollum to take his place for a while. The boy drove the E train from Penn Station to the World Trade Center; though he did the job perfectly, the ride ended with the first of many arrests.

McCollum has now spent more than half his life in jail, despite an early diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome that many feel explains his inability to stop "taking" trains and buses. Of course, if the MTA would just hire the poor guy — by all accounts here, he's a better employee than most who are getting paid — the state could stop paying to prosecute and jail him. But he's a high-profile embarrassment by now to transit decision-makers.

While we fret over a situation offering no easy solutions, Irving alternates between colorful anecdotes from McCollum's illicit career (like the time he posed as a supervisor, showing real employees how their jobs were supposed to be done) and examples of the way the courts have failed him — as when a judge single-handedly declared that, psych evaluations be damned, McCollum didn't have Asperger's.

All the while, we observe the strained relationship between McCollum and the mother he loves dearly, who has moved far from New York and is in poor health. He's convinced that if he can get out to North Carolina to care for her, the distance from the MTA will help him quash his obsessions. A coda puts that assumption to the test, without quite concluding that this strange story is at its end.

Venue: Hot Docs Film Festival
Production companies: Gemini Pictures, Zipper Brothers Films
Director: Adam Irving
Screenwriters-editors: Adam Irving, Tchavdar Georgiev
Producers: Adam Irving, Glen Zipper
Director of photography: Adam Irving
Composers: Duncan Thum, Steve Gernes

Not rated, 89 minutes