‘Story Ave’ Review: Luis Guzmán in a Touching if Familiar Bronx Tale

There’s a double meaning to the title of writer-director Aristotle Torres’ debut feature, Story Ave, that neatly sums up what this homegrown NYC coming-of-age drama is all about.

On the one hand, it refers to the fictitious Bronx subway station where its main character, a young and troubled graffiti artist named Kadir, has an encounter that will put him on either the right or wrong path for the future. On the other, it underlines the storybook quality of a movie that, although entrenched in certain socioeconomic realities, veers toward fantasy in some unexpected ways.

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Torres, adapting with co-writer Bonsu Thompson from a short they made together in 2018, jumps back and forth between the two elements throughout Story Ave, which takes familiar tropes of the urban youth genre (gang violence, domestic troubles, peer pressure, guns and drugs) and, in its most memorable moments, turns them into something slightly magical. The movie often toes the line between inner-city clichés and a vision that’s more stylish and unique, never quite landing on the proper balance between the two. But as a touching portrait of an outer-borough New Yorker whose talents are just waiting to be harnessed, it shows some true potential.

Those talents belong to Kadir (Asante Blackk from When They See Us), a Bronx high school student and burgeoning artist who, along with his best buddy, Moe (Alex R. Hibbert, Moonlight), runs with a local graffiti crew called OTL (Outside the Lines). A gifted tagger and portraitist who always has a sketchbook in his hands, Kadir has been thoroughly shaken by the recent death of his disabled brother, growing increasingly estranged from his mom (Cassandra Freeman) while falling further into the hands of OTL’s charismatic but shifty ringleader, Skemes (Melvin Gregg).

It’s the kind of setup we’ve seen in many coming-of-age dramas — the good kid who could go bad — and just when you think it’s headed that way, Torres throws a monkey wrench into the machinery that comes in the form of Luis Guzmán, playing an MTA worker (also named Luis) whom Kadir tries and fails to stick up at a subway station.

Lonely and saddled with a drinking problem, Luis unexpectedly welcomes Kadir into his life, encouraging his artwork and trying his best to keep him off the streets. The twist adds a little magic to a formula that can otherwise feels tried and tested — Boaz Yakin’s 1994 breakthrough Fresh told a similar Bronx tale three decades ago — and the relationship between the two outcasts turns into a poignant story of survival.

The film’s best scenes are the ones where Kadir and Luis face off over Cuban sandwiches at a 24-hour restaurant under the train tracks, getting to know each other while consistently keeping their guards up. Blackk shows real promise in these moments, with a glow in his eyes behind all of his character’s defense mechanisms, while Guzmán perfectly encapsulates a weary New Yawka with a good heart and a failing, alcohol-soaked liver (or kidneys, as evidenced in a painful urination scene).

Their story gets a bit overwrought and movie-ish in the last act, which alas heads to familiar places, tossing in a last-minute voiceover that feels like it was added in post-production to clarify the narrative. At that point, Torres also opts to slap on an uplifting Hollywood ending, whereas what made Story Ave feel original was its more honest and compassionate portrayal of the city’s forgotten residents.

The ending is perhaps a case of the fantasy part winning out over reality, in a film that oscillates between the two without always finding its footing. That approach is also reflected in a style that shifts between gritty urban textures and more stylish flights of fancy, with gifted director of photography Eric Branco (Clemency) creating arresting imagery out of the many Bronx locations. It’s an apt way to depict a place that, like its budding hero, is both cut off from the world and ripe with possibilities.

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