Review by Sean Boelman
One of the greatest things about festivals is getting the opportunity to see films by undiscovered voices that you just know will make it big one day, and that is certainly the case with Story Ave. Filmmaker Aristotle Torres is an astounding new talent, having made a movie with a wonderful message and strong Spike Lee influence, making it one of the finest films in this year’s SXSW lineup.
The movie follows a teenage street artist who runs away from home and attempts to stand up an MTA worker, only for his life to change forever in that moment when he is shown unexpected kindness and empathy. It’s a conventional story told unconventionally, and with a level of humanity and honesty that makes it stand out.
Although the film is primarily uplifting and inspiring in nature, Torres and co-writer Bonsu Thompson also do not shy away from some of the more hard-hitting themes. The movie examines the system that has allowed so many youth to reach this point of desperation, and it really provokes the audience to think about these topics that need to be discussed.
Torres gives us a young protagonist that at once feels familiar and intensely unique. Although the arc he goes through is somewhat by-the-book, Torres and Thompson expand upon the character in a way that is very powerful. Some of the supporting characters — such as the protagonist’s mother and a pseudo-love interest — aren’t as fleshed out, but the protagonist and his de facto mentor are both enormously compelling.
The only real shortcoming of the film is that some of the emotional beats end up feeling somewhat telegraphed. It’s relatively obvious where the story is going, and some of the developments happen so quickly and suddenly that they don’t reach their full maximum emotional resonance. Still, the character development is so good that it works nonetheless.
Young actor Asante Blackk (who festival-goers might recognize from his turn in Sundance sci-fi comedy Landscape With Invisible Hand) gives a performance here that is truly extraordinary. He ascends far beyond the conventions of a troubled teen movie to give a turn that feels legitimately emotional. And the enormously talented Luis Guzmán is at his best with a performance that is so authentically empathetic.
Stylistically, Torres clearly owes a lot to the iconic Spike Lee. (The film even includes one of Lee’s iconic double dolly shots in its first few minutes.) That being said, there are also plenty of stylistic choices that allow Torres to make the movie his own. The use of street art, in particular, is quite impressive and gives the film a stronger personality.
Story Ave has vibes that are very reminiscent of some of the greatest filmmakers ever, paving the way for a bright future for Aristotle Torres. It’s an astounding debut that is stylistically accomplished and narratively meaningful, and hopefully it will reach the audience it deserves.
Story Ave is screening at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival, which runs March 10-18 in Austin, TX.