An aspiring mugger attempting his first stickup job has a lot to worry about. There’s a million ways that a sidewalk robbery could go wrong, from a target turning violent and pulling a gun to police catching the crime and making an arrest. But nobody ever thinks about the humiliating possibility that the would-be victim is completely unfazed by the criminal’s attempts at intimidation and simply takes pity on 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 with street crime, attempts to jump a stranger on the subway. A promising young painter, Kadir desperately wants to become a crew member of a local gang and graffiti collective that runs his corner of the Bronx. He’s much more interested in the spray painting — which the crew sees as “modern hieroglyphics” and a nonviolent rejection of gentrification — than the robbing aspect of it, but he has to make his bones by stealing a wallet before his initiation.
Unfortunately for him, he chose Luis Torres (Luis Guzmán) as his target. Luis immediately recognizes that the tough-talking kid poses no real threat and offers to buy him dinner and send him away with a pocket full of cash and some life advice. Kadir’s learned sense of machismo prevents him from accepting the generosity at first, but a hot meal and $300 is too much to pass up. A sporadically beautiful, always unlikely friendship is instantly formed.
Aristotle Torres’ directorial debut is a sensitive portrait of a talented young man trying to make the best of an impossible set of choices with no real role models to guide him. Kadir’s mother and stepfather are still grieving over the death of his brother — who committed suicide after struggling to live with cerebral palsy — and have little time or emotional energy to help their other son navigate life on the streets. Kadir demonstrates clear talent as an artist, but it often seems like the only people who encourage his creativity are his grafitti-loving friends who have resigned themselves to the fact that art needs to go hand-in-hand with drug dealing. But even as his friends try to pull him closer to the streets, Kadir’s better angels draw him towards bigger things. He speaks to a guidance counselor about his aspirations to attend art school, and is basically told that he’ll never have a chance. With deteriorating family relationships and an increasing aversion to gang life, he becomes willing to spend more and more time with Luis.
As the emotional fulcrum on which the film rests, Blackk gives a masterful performance, despite rarely speaking. It’s apparent that he has 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 somebody would just take a serious interest in him.
Luis attempts to fill that role and offers plenty of material generosity, but the film wisely subverts the “troubled kid finds a mentor” trope by portraying Luis as a complex figure who needs to 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 preferable offer to being out on the streets. But Torres constantly reminds us that Luis has this much time to look out for Kadir because he’s completely alone in life, and explores how the behavioral patterns that led to his isolation reemerge in his relationship with Kadir.
“Story Ave” approaches the challenges faced by a talented artist in underprivileged circumstances with a clear head, always pivoting away from simplistic narratives and towards reality. Torres resists the temptation to promise us that there’s an easy way out if Kadir simply works hard enough, but he also refuses to write off his protagonist’s life before it even begins. More than anything else, the film is an ode to survival. There’s never a guarantee that tomorrow will bring all the answers, but getting through today without losing your soul is an admirable start.
A Kino Lorber release, “Story Ave” is now playing in theaters in New York City. It opens in Los Angeles on Friday, October 13.