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Time spent at the movies when Luis Guzmán is up on the screen is never time wasted. So for his debut feature, co-writer/director Aristotle Torres already has a leg up on many other filmmakers. Guzmán, here playing a character named Luis Torres—the extent to which this movie is autobiographical for its director and co-writer is potentially indicated by the shared surname here—is the wise but troubled heart of a movie that's essentially a story of escape.
When we first meet its lead character, the young, slightly built, introspective Kadir Grayson, he’s floating in a manner we’ve seen in certain shots in the Spike Lee films. Torres takes the visual metaphor even further by taking it out of metaphor: he cuts to a shot of Kadir’s feet, in white socks, floating above the floor of his apartment’s hallway. But the movie soon makes clear that Kadir’s not floating out of a sense of exhilaration. He’s floating because he’s as lost as he’s ever been.
His beloved brother is gone. His mother is in a depressive spiral. Remember that Lynyrd Skynyrd song, “All I Can Do Is Write About It”? All Kadir can do is draw about it in his notebooks and on walls with spray paint. The older brother of Kadir’s best friend is a hyper self-styled street king nicknamed “Skemes” (Melvin Gregg) who holds sway over a tagging team called “Outside the Lines,” who is, among other things, locked in a potentially lethal rivalry with another gang called “VHS.” Skemes discourages Kadir from seeking recognition and help from anywhere outside their circumscribed world. Later in the movie, Kadir will meet some artists who remember Skemes from back in the day—when he had “cops AND galleries banging on his door.” But these days, Skemes advises Kadir to “celebrate our culture ... a culture that was a scar for us but is now conveniently a commodity for them.”
But Skemes has some odd ideas about how Kadir should do that. He lends his automatic to the kid and tells him to prove his mettle by robbing some random civilians. And bring back their IDs, credit cards, and such.
While Kadir, played with exceptional depth by Asante Blackk, is a pretty abrasive character for a pretty long time in this story, he’s no stickup kid. His second would-be victim, Guzmán’s character, recognizes this. He reacts to being held up with rather surprising generosity, standing Kadir for a meal, introducing him to another young artist, and imparting wisdom with compassion.
“Story Ave” is a portrait of an artist as a young man, a not-quite-coming-of-age tale, a narrative of escape but not abandonment. The outlines of the movie’s story are familiar, but Torres has resourcefulness, energy, and imagination to burn in how he tells it. The scenes of Kadir’s nightmares are especially vivid. And the way we’re led through Kadir’s eventual realization that the biggest obstacle he has to overcome is his bitter recalcitrance is more credible than what we get in many other such pictures. And then, of course, there’s Guzmán, delivering the comedic, sage, and tragic goods with equal power.
Now playing in theaters.
Asante Blackk as Kadir Grayson
Luis Guzmán as Luis Torres
Melvin Gregg as Sean Skemes Hernandez
Alex Hibbert as Maurice Moe Hernandeez
Coral Peña as Gloria Sanchez
Cassandra Freeman as Olivia Grayson
Stella Doyle as Isabel
Xavier Jiménez as Punch
Sue Kim as Ms. Chen