The drops of water coming from the bathtub's faucet at the beginning of Story Ave sound as loud as an earthquake. It’s in a bathroom where Kadir (Asante Blackk), a high school student and talented artist, tries to make sense of one of the most challenging days of his life. His disabled brother passed away due to an accidental drowning, which he already feels guilty for – never mind the many whispers in his living room making guesses about what happened after the funeral. His mother is riddled with grief, unsure of what to do in light of the tragic incident.
We have a young man searching for guidance and an outlet for much of the artwork in a notebook he carries everywhere he goes. Writer/director Aristotle Torres’s Story Ave. is reminiscent of other inner city coming-of-age stories where the talent and spark are within someone. Still, circumstances beyond their control might lead them down a difficult path. Kadir looks to his best friend Mo (Alex R. Hibbert) for stability. In addition to that, he’s trying to become one of OTL (Outside the Lines), a local Bronx graffiti group. They are run by Mo’s older brother, Skemes (Melvin Gregg), who shares the same appreciation of tagging that Kadir does, but is volatile when dealing with rival group VHS.
While Kadir does beautiful artwork on the walls of The Bronx, it’s not enough to make him a part of the group. He has to do a rather dangerous mode of initiation. Here, Torres and co-writer Bonsu Thompson could have elected to go the route of a kid doing something horrible and venturing up the long road to redemption. It sure looks that way as Kadir tries to stick up an MTA worker, Luis (Luis Guzmán), but Luiz isn’t buying this. “You’re not a stick-up kid. You look like you’re going through stuff.” He’s right. Kadir isn’t the type of person that would try to rob someone – he’s just trying to look for somebody to embrace him.
Some of Story Ave’s more effective set pieces have Kadir and Luis sitting in a small restaurant, eating Cuban sandwiches and contemplating life itself. Luis has his own set of issues battling alcoholism and a particular estrangement with a family member in his own right. But he sees something in Kadir and his artwork and is determined to steer Kadir away from trouble. Guzmán portrays Luis as soft, a little warn because of what life has thrown his way, and understanding. Blackk is provided the space to display the range of emotions of a young man dealing with heaviness with pinpoint accuracy.
Kadir has a reoccurring nightmare about the night he lost his brother, and it hammers his psyche repeatedly because that’s precisely what grief does. It fights for the space that creativity usually sets up shop in. His sketch notebook is full of portraits of his brother, and you can tell Kadir wants to do what’s best for his legacy – even if he’s unsure where his own might lead. Torres introduces a subplot with a local photographer, Gloria (Coral Peña), whom Kadir meets through Luiz at the restaurant they meet at regularly. Questions arise about the ownership and purity of art.
Where Gloria takes photographs of places within the Bronx for her art show, Kadir (and Skemes early on) believes the purest form of it flows through the mode of tagging as it keeps the inspiration within the community. It’s a concept that doesn’t necessarily connect all the way, but an interesting one to ponder. Towards the film's end, this changes for Kadir simply because he finds a pathway to get his talents to a broader audience safely and without losing himself.
We all want to be remembered by the people we love for the things that make us unique. This also rings true for urban communities facing the trials of gentrification – seeing their culture be erased like paint going across a colorful mural. While very familiar with dramas of this mold of the past, Story Ave throws just enough surprises and room for the performances to do the work in making this a meaningful experience.