An aspiring highwayman attempting his first robbery has much to worry about. There are a million ways a sidewalk robbery can go wrong, from a violent victim pulling a gun to the police recording the crime and making an arrest. But no one ever considers the humiliating possibility that the potential victim will remain completely unfazed by the criminal’s intimidation attempts and simply feel sorry for them.
That’s what happens in an early scene in “Story Ave,” when Kadir (Asante Blackk), a shy teenager who clearly has no business getting involved in street crime, tries to attack a stranger on the subway. Kadir, a promising young painter, is desperate to become a member of a local gang and graffiti collective that runs his corner of the Bronx. He’s far more interested in the spray painting – which the crew sees as “modern hieroglyphics” and a non-violent rejection of gentrification – than the predatory aspect of it, but he has to steal a wallet before his initiation.
Unfortunately, he chose Luis Torres (Luis Guzmán) as his target. Luis immediately realizes that the stubborn boy poses no real threat and offers to buy him dinner and send him off with a bag full of cash and some life advice. Kadir’s acquired sense of machismo initially prevents him from accepting the generosity, but a hot meal and $300 are too much to pass up. A sporadically beautiful, always unlikely friendship immediately develops.
Aristotle Torres’ directorial debut is a sensitive portrait of a talented young man trying to make the best of a series of impossible decisions, with no real role models to guide him. Kadir’s mother and stepfather are still grieving the death of his brother, who committed suicide after struggling with cerebral palsy, and have little time or emotional energy to help their other son cope with life on the streets. Kadir shows clear talent as an artist, but it often seems as if the only people encouraging his creativity are his graffiti-loving friends, who have resigned themselves to the fact that art must go hand in hand with drug dealing. But as his friends try to pull him closer to the road, Kadir’s better angels pull him toward bigger things. He talks to a guidance counselor about his ambitions to go to art school and is basically told he’ll never have a chance. As family relationships deteriorate and dislike of gang life increases, he is willing to spend more and more time with Luis.
As the film’s emotional fulcrum, Blackk delivers a masterful performance despite rarely speaking. It’s obvious that he’s adopted a combination of silence and brashness as a survival mechanism, but his eyes reveal a sensitivity and intelligence that suggests he could be so much more if only someone were genuinely interested in him .
Luis tries to fill this role and offers plenty of material generosity, but the film wisely subverts the “troubled boy finds a mentor” theme by portraying Luis as a complex character who must save himself before he can save anyone else . When Luis offers Kadir a place to stay after his family kicks him out, it’s an infinitely better offer than being on the streets. But Torres constantly reminds us that Luis has so much time to care for Kadir because he is completely alone in life, and explores how the behavioral patterns that led to his isolation resurface in his relationship with Kadir come.
“Story Ave” approaches the challenges faced by a talented artist in disadvantaged backgrounds with a clear head, always turning away from simple narratives and towards reality. Torres resists the temptation to promise us that there’s an easy way out if Kadir works hard enough, but also refuses to write off his protagonist’s life before it even begins. The film is, above all, an ode to survival. There is never a guarantee that all the answers will come tomorrow, but getting through today without losing your soul is an admirable start.
“Story Ave,” a Kino-Lorber release, is now playing in theaters in New York City. The opening takes place on Friday, October 13th in Los Angeles.