Asante Blackk & Luis Guzmán Elevate A Touching Drama [SXSW]

Mar 28, 2023

Directed by Aristotle Torres from a screenplay in partnership with Bonsu Thompson, Story Ave is elevated by the special relationship crafted between its main characters. It doesn’t tell a fresh story, but in Torres and Thompson’s capable hands, the narrative rises above certain conventions and reaches into the heart of its core relationship. It’s a moving, engrossing character-driven drama that is strengthened by its lead cast while touching upon grief and the ties that grow from loss.

Kadir Grayson (Asante Blackk) is a teenager who is struggling after the loss of his disabled brother, and his death weighs heavily on him. Kadir is also a graffiti artist who doesn’t really see a future for himself outside his Bronx neighborhood and who, after running away from home, takes up with a local graffiti gang. But after holding up MTA conductor Luis Torres (Luis Guzmán) with a gun, Luis buys the gun off Kadir and invites him to dinner. Luis sees there’s more to Kadir than meets the eye, and the two grow closer. Kadir needs a father figure in his life and Luis treats Kadir like the son he lost.

Story Ave’s narrative beats are familiar: A teenager, stuck within the confines of his location and situation, develops a relationship with a mentor/father-figure in the hopes that he will eventually get the opportunity to do something else. While the story isn’t original, it’s the execution that stands out. Story Ave treats its characters like fully realized people who each have struggles of their own. The Bronx is a character unto itself, and it makes Kadir’s world feel lived-in, with the audience being invited into this space that he calls home. Crucially, the film leans into the fact that it isn’t the lack of talent that prevents him from soaring, but a lack of opportunity. When a teenager grows up in an environment where they feel like there are simply no options, their future is a lot more limited — often to the place and circumstances they are already in. Through Kadir and Luis’ relationship, hope grows despite being nonexistent at first.

To that end, it’s Kadir and Luis’ dynamic that maintains engagement and keeps the story afloat. Kadir is without someone to look up to, so he latches onto Luis because he’s not only a father-figure but someone who offers support and believes in him. Luis is tough on Kadir, but in an affectionate way. At the same time, Luis is also missing a son, and he finds that in Kadir, showering him with quality time and care that he can no longer offer his own. The pair have their ups and downs, hurdles, and anger they must overcome, but their lives are changed for the better simply by being in each other’s orbit. The film also lives and dies by their relationship, and it’s elevated sharply because it’s handled so well and so gently.

Asante Blackk is an actor on the rise (he last starred in the Sundance film Landscape with Invisible Hand) and his projects thus far have made him a talent who is well worth the watch. He imbues Kadir with a frustrated intensity that burns brightly. At the same time, he’s a scared teen with pent-up emotions — grief, loneliness, etc. — that often bubble to the surface in a myriad of ways. Blackk conveys the range of his character’s feelings through nuanced facial expressions and body language, his soulful eyes telling the audience all they need to know about what’s going on beneath the surface. Guzmán is also excellent. He exposes Luis’ sense of weariness and pain from loss, though he has a hard exterior with a soft center. The actors do a great job playing off of each other and their scenes together are some of the best in the film.

Story Ave finds hope and warmth after loss. It provides an anchor for both Kadir and Luis, and the story’s execution and cinematography does the rest. With everything in place, Store Ave works on an emotional level, allowing these fully-realized characters to steer the ship towards an ending that is true to all that came before. It’s a lovely, heartfelt movie that is also gritty and deep and evocative, with outstanding performances that ground the story in every possible way.

Story Ave had its premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival on March 11. The film is 94 minutes long and not yet rated.

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