Navigating the path of young stardom is difficult for the best of performers. Yet Asante Blackk seems destined to break through the noise. Blackk already earned acclaim for his performance in When They See Us about the Central Park 5. Then, his guest starring role on This Is Us opened him up to a new audience. Yet Story Ave, the debut feature of Aristotle Torres relies on his talent. With an incredibly emotional and layered performance, Blackk rises to the occasion and gives Story Ave a heartbeat rarely seen by young actors.
After waking up in the middle of the night, Kadir (Blackk) discovered his younger brother had died. When his mother goes catatonic, Kadir searches for family anywhere he can find it. First, best friend Moe (Alex R. Hibbert) and his brother Skemes (Melvin Gregg) offer an out through street art and gang activity. When asked to complete his initiation, Kadir approaches an MTA employee Luis (Luis Guzman). Luis becomes a light in the darkness, attempting to help Kadir shift his perspective on life.
Torres approaches Story Ave with an eye on elevating it above traditional coming-of-age storytelling. It certainly plays into the tropes of the wayward youth finding a way out of their circumstance. Yet the film’s primary focus on Kadir’s mental health opens the door for other dialogue to occur. This goes beyond trauma and into the struggle with genuine grief.
Blackk brings this to the screen in a miraculous performance. His coping might come through art, but it’s how he displays the dichotomy between the internal and external struggle that helps us feel his pain. Blackk creates an air of hopelessness and reckless abandon that really brings his pain to the forefront. It’s a genuinely moving performance and you will find yourself rooting for him at every turn.
Guzman and Gregg establish an ethical dichotomy for Blackk’s Kabir to navigate. Gregg brings a tremendous energy to his role as he pushes Kabir to fail. He wants the young man to achieve what he could not, and knows that Kabir should not be in their world. With a simple look, we learn everything we need to know about the boisterous and frustrated man.
Meanwhile, Guzman represents a quieter, more passive way out. He finds ways for Kabir to establish himself a good man. Yet there’s a quiet edge of rage underlying the character. As Story Ave develops, there’s plenty of good and bad in both men to navigate.
Torres delivers a film that pays homage to Spike Lee (an early double dolly shot immediately brings him to mind) and bears a stylistic similarity to Blindspotting and Fruitvale Station. Yet it’s Blackk’s performance that ultimately steals the film. Story Ave still suffers from some of the pitfalls of coming-of-age stories, including a rather predictable narrative. However, it also signals the arrival or a promising star and a promising directorial voice.