Naming a young Black man’s story after a transport stop gives off strong Fruitvale vibes, but Aristotle Torres’ feature debut reaches back further to the hip-hop morality tales of the early ’90s, like Boaz Yakin’s Fresh or Ernest Dickerson’s Juice — the wave that immediately followed John Singleton’s influential Boyz n the Hood. Surprisingly, given Torres’ history of videos for the likes of Ludacris and Nas, the soundtrack is light on rap, using unexpected needle drops like Pavarotti’s version of “La Donna e Mobile” to score scenes of spray-can anarchy on the New York subway.
In all other ways, however, Story Ave is very much a ’hood movie, in the sense that its young protagonist is both constrained and defined by the place where he lives, in this case the Bronx. That person is Kadir (Asante Blackk), a talented young artist tormented by the recent death of his disabled little brother. Kadir runs with a graffiti crew called Outside the Lines, headed up by the dangerous but charismatic Skemes (Melvin Gregg), and he’s desperate to prove himself to the older guy. Which is how he comes to pull a gun on a random stranger at the Story Avenue transit stop one night.
In events evidently inspired by a true story, Kadir picks on Luis (Luís Guzmán), a Puerto Rican MTA conductor, who is not at all intimidated by the younger man (“What’s a gun like yours doing in a face like mine?” he deadpans). Instead, he takes Kadir to a Cuban cafe to have dinner with him, eventually buying the gun from him, not knowing that it actually belongs to Skemes. Just as Kadir is missing a father figure, Luiz is missing a son, and his fight to win the boy’s trust becomes a tug of war when Skemes gets to hear about it. There’s a glimmer of light for Kadir when a sympathetic teacher opens up the possibility of a place at art school, but his self-destructive streak kicks in, putting his whole future in jeopardy (“I don’t know if I was meant for life outside the Bronx,” he muses). And with a furious Skemes on his tail, that decision may be out of his hands anyway.
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All the while, the Bronx is changing around him, and what makes Story Ave stand out from the crowd is its treatment of the ’hood as a living entity, both in the script and onscreen in director of photography Eric Branco’s exquisite compositions. There are melancholy echoes here of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and, in this regard, the Outside the Lines crew are keepers of the flame, protecting their turf like the Sharks in West Side Story (“Rule No. 1: Always respect the hood. If you don’t respect it, who else will?”). It’s this keen sense of an urban philosophy — “The streets tell you who you are” — that reels Kadir in, and he bristles when he hears graffiti art contemptuously referred to as “big bubble letters.”
Though the predicament it sets out is schematic at time, the performances are not. Guzmán, grizzled and dependable as ever but never saintly, is perhaps one of the few actors who can pull off this kind of part, but Blackk is the revelation here, credibly evoking a lost soul at a crossroads whose destiny could take him all the way in either direction (fame and fortune or jail/death). Gregg, meanwhile, is perhaps the film’s secret weapon: Skemes is memorably described as “a crazy motherf*cker but nasty with paint,” and that’s exactly how he plays it. Perhaps a little too successfully, since the final face-off between Kadir and Skemes isn’t quite the big gundown you might be expecting.
Nevertheless, Story Ave has lots to say that’s unexpected and thoughtful, seeing gentrification from the other side and, most notably, pondering on inner lives of graffiti gangs and their quest for immortality, whether in the thug life or the art life. “Everybody wants to go to heaven,” sighs Skemes, “but don’t nobody want the grave.”
Title: Story Ave
Festival: SXSW, Narrative Feature Competition
Director: Aristotle Torres
Screenwriter: Bonsu Thompson, Aristotle Torres
Cast: Asante Blackk, Luis Guzmán, Melvin Gregg
Running time: 1 hr 34 min
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