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Review: ‘Avenues’

A poignant look at life in East Los Angeles

Above: Saul encounters a Latino gang member friend in "Avenues," the new film from emerging director Aaref Rodriguez, set in Highland Park, Los Angeles.

— For Saul Sanchez, coming back to his East Los Angeles barrio a man after leaving it as a boy bound for prison is not easy. The streets are the same, but Saul has had 10 years to think, 10 years to miss his little girl, 10 years to remember for whom he went to jail.

And Saul, tatted and buffed out, wants to leave prison and the impoverished opportunities of gang life behind.

But in “Avenues,” the moving new feature film from emerging director Aaref Rodriguez, making the transition is not going to be that simple.

Like many Latino gang members, Saul finds himself behind several eight balls. His prodigal “Avenidas Familia” wants him back, Saul wants to write his child a letter, but he can’t even read, and lost in the barrios of East Los Angeles, Saul needs to make a new place for himself.

Shot in Highland Park, home of the real "Avenidas" gang, and based on the real–life stories of several of the actors in the film itself, “Avenues,” is a well-crafted look at how the gang life can eat its victims from within. Beautifully lensed in crisp, saturated color, the film follows Saul from his release from prison to the shocking finish of a life come full circle.

Saul, played with a simmering frustration and pain by the elegantly taut Hector Atreyu Ruiz (“NCIS,” “The Dark Knight Rises”), hides his prison tats under long sleeves and his illiteracy under prickly bravado. When his parole officer Angela Wright (the gorgeous, dignified Tracey Heggins), uncovers his inability to read, Saul must learn to overcome his pride and shame if he is to ever write that letter to his daughter. His clandestine affair with Tracey pushes him to reach beyond his limits as she dares him to see himself as more than an ex-con.

His frustration with both the written word and her expectations hint at his meager childhood and youth spent running with a gang as a replacement for his family.

But dealing with Tracey is not Saul’s only test. Saul’s daughter is now the adopted child of another man and Saul’s desire to reconnect with her pushes him to both observe her life from a distance and labor over a letter that might tear her world apart.

In addition, as Saul discovers, the rough streets of Highland Park conspire to pull him in ever closer. His “Avenidas Familia” is trying to reel him in, but Saul tries to keep them at a distance. Nacho (a taciturn, intense Renee Areola), the family head, expects respect and Saul’s presence on command at family gatherings. Victor (a dead-on performance by Ski Carr), one of his “Avenidas brothers” reminds him of how the family took care of his mother while he was in prison, Saul reminds Victor of how the family left him in jail (“we had to keep our distance, homes”), with nary a visit despite his service to the family, which we surmise was a hit for Nacho.

As Saul pulls away from his gang family, he starts to see himself in lonely fatherless 14-year-old Leo (Israel Montano in a stunning debut performance) who does daily battle with poverty and schoolmates who bully him unmercifully. Saul tries to mentor him but too ashamed to explain his past, can only try to act like an older brother to counteract Leo’s growing interest in the money and “respect” gang life promises him.

Saul’s precarious balance threatens to come undone both as Tracey and Victor pressure him to move into their worlds and a fight at Victor’s house seals his fate.

It is in Saul’s final moments that he transcends his self and we learn just what it was that has brought him (and us) to this point.

Different from many Latino gang films, “Avenues” is a call for change from within the Latino community but also a cautionary tale, a film of cycles, secrets and taboos.

Rodriguez has built his story on the life experiences of Arreola and family stories of Israel Montano but the acting of the cast seems to come deep from within, as almost a catharsis. Rodriguez wisely allows Arreola, Montano and Atreyu Ruiz room to draw deep from their individual barrio pasts to fill out their characters, lending an authenticity and dignity to the story that some films built on barrio gang life seem to lack.

Shot in a run and gun manner on SLR cameras with professional lenses, the look of the film is finely crafted, if slightly under-edited. Rodriguez gives his urban vistas room to breathe while refusing to pretty up or romanticize either the characters or the streets. The film has an almost auteur-like quality to it, so completely involved was Rodriguez in its making. However, the longer shots could do with a slight trim since they threaten to slow down the otherwise well-paced dialog and scenes of Saul traveling in buses and cars.

Adding to the interest is the surprisingly spare soundtrack. Again, contrary to a number of films on gang life, “Avenues” is absent a hip-hop or pop-saturated soundscape. What it does have is a soundtrack that seems to echo its characters’ interior landscape without working against the story. Rodriguez has said in interviews that this was a conscious decision on his part, in an effort to give the film a certain degree of universality, and for the most part, this was a good decision.

Latino gang life seems to be going the cinematic path of the narco traffickers and thugs– romanticized, exploited and glamourized with an eye to the dollars their imitation generates. “Avenues” on the other hand, looks beyond the gang signs and flash, for a poignant portrait of how one man tries to break the cycle that threatens to wash the promise of barrio Latino youth down the drain of poverty and gang violence.

Dismiss this film as yet another cholo gang movie, and you might miss one of the best films of this year’s San Diego Latino Film Festival.

“Avenues” won Best HBO Narrative at the 2014 San Diego Latino Film Festival.

“Avenues” goes well with La Mission, Mi Vida Loca and Blood In, Blood out.

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