The Search for Common Ground


Getting along with others sometimes isn’t easy, even under the best of circumstances. Differences – of almost any kind – can become obstacles that impede communications and understanding, potentially making relations between individuals and groups problematic or even impossible. But conditions need not remain that way if we make an effort to get past them, an undertaking that generally calls for finding common ground and seeking solidarity. That process can be challenging, too, but it can open the door to finding a workable solution, an undertaking explored in the inspiring English drama, “The Old Oak” (web site, trailer).

In 2016, as countless Syrian refugees fled the civil war and widespread human rights violations in their homeland, many began making their way to Europe to seek safety and a place to start over. Many had lost everything, and once-tight-knit families were torn apart. They suffered great losses and tremendous indignities, and hope was a commodity that was hard to come by. But, for those who were fortunate enough to find ways to begin anew, the prospect of relocation, sanctuary and safety offered promise for the future. They looked upon these opportunities with gratitude and optimism. However, despite this hopefulness, these chances for a fresh start were not without challenges.

Given the limited resources of the refugees and of public authorities seeking to accommodate the tremendous influx of new arrivals, the expense of absorbing waves of immigrants became a critical consideration for those providing care. So, quite understandably, locales with resources like affordable housing became leading candidates for resettlement.

Syrian refugee Yara (Ebla Mari, center), an aspiring photographer, seeks to bring together her immigrant peers and local residents of a small town in northern England in the uplifting new drama, “The Old Oak.” Photo by Joss Barratt, courtesy of Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber.

One such area was northern England, a once-thriving center for coal mining that had been in gradual economic decline for decades. The region’s financial slide, unfortunately, had a profound effect on the fiscal well-being of the locals. At the same time, though, the region’s downturn also made available reasonably priced accommodations for the refugees, especially in small towns, many of which were characterized by conservative working class populations. Because of these demographic and economic shifts, busloads of refugees began arriving in these communities, a development that the displaced enthusiastically welcomed but that area residents looked on with skepticism and suspicion.

The flood of newly arrived strangers with ways that were unfamiliar to the locals raised more than a few eyebrows – and tempers – among the established population. Area residents were afraid that the refugees would take away what few economic opportunities were available and would cause property values to plummet. Consequently, those who were simply seeking basic shelter and a new beginning became targets for prejudice, bias and abuse. So much for a warm welcome to the neighborhood.

This latest offering from legendary director Ken Loach tells a compelling tale drawn from circumstances like those discussed above, set in a small town not far from the English city of Durham. However, while many of the locals in this story either openly adhere to the aforementioned intolerant views or half-heartedly try to distance themselves from them with lame rationalizations to the contrary, not everyone agrees with these scornful, unflattering outlooks. One of them is Tommy Joe “TJ” Ballantyne (Dave Turner), owner of The Old Oak, a local pub that has become the primary meeting place for area residents over the years. As one of the last-remaining venues for public gatherings, the pub is the principal forum for community “discussion,” much of which takes a decidedly darker tone when the subject of the immigrants comes up. And, through it all, TJ is present to hear what his customers have to say, nearly all of which he quietly disagrees with.

TJ’s social and political views are considerably more progressive than those of many of the pub’s regulars, an outlook he developed as a teen when witnessing the unfair labor policies and practices inflicted upon local coal miners by the Margaret Thatcher government in the 1980s. But, despite this more broad-minded perspective, he generally holds his tongue when his regulars began mouthing off about the new arrivals. He somehow manages to keep quiet when routinely subjected to the ongoing vocal complaints offered up by longtime regulars like Charlie (Trevor Fox), Vic (Chris McGlade) and Garry (Jordan Louis). They routinely ridicule and rail against the Syrians, often using unsavory language and disparaging names in describing them. And, even though TJ and his business have been seriously affected by the same economic slide as many of his neighbors, he never looks for a scapegoat for his troubles – especially the refugees. He can appreciate the hardships they endured, and he isn’t about to add to their burden by placing blame on them for something that wasn’t their fault. In fact, TJ actually walks his talk when it comes to his own brand of social activism. For example, he seeks to ease the refugees’ suffering by helping his friend, Laura (Claire Rodgerson), as a volunteer for a charity she runs that supplies them with basic necessities for everyday living.

Pub owner Tommy Joe “TJ” Ballantyne (Dave Turner), owner of The Old Oak, a neighborhood pub in a small northern England town, faces an array of challenges to stay open and keep his customers happy in the latest (and supposedly final) film from legendary director Ken Loach, “The Old Oak,” available for streaming online. Photo by Joss Barratt, courtesy of Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber.

Not long after a group of refugees arrives in town, TJ’s intervention on their behalf is significantly stepped up when he comes to the aid of Yara (Ebla Mari), a young Syrian woman and aspiring photographer, when she’s harassed by one of the locals. They subsequently become friends and work to promote better relations between the locals and the new arrivals. They look for ways to help the two communities find solidarity through common ground. For instance, both area residents and the Syrians have experienced difficulties in which they’ve suffered material losses. If anything, they believe that those shared ordeals should serve as the basis for drawing everyone together, not drive them apart. Those experiences, they contend, should unify them and give them strength, providing mutual support to help them move forward in their lives. And engaging in simple gestures like sharing a meal together can go a long way toward helping to forge those bonds, bringing individuals together who once believed that such developments would never happen.

Itʼs amazing what we can accomplish when we put our minds to it, provided we believe in the idea. And that’s precisely where the residents – both old and new – of this small English town need to put their focus. That’s because our beliefs play a crucial role in manifesting the existence we experience. It’s not clear how many of the characters in this story have heard of this way of thinking, but they seem to have some grasp over how its principles work. And, if they ever hope for a better tomorrow, it would be in their best interests to brush up on the concepts that make it work.

There are several disparate constituencies involved in the unfolding of this story. First, there are the refugees, who are desperately in search of an opportunity to start over. And, considering the great lengths they’ve gone to in trying to find a new home, they must place a lot of faith in that notion. But, as events materialize, they sincerely believe that the outcome will result, despite whatever difficulties may emerge along the way, and they’ve collectively and individually directed their intents on seeing that happen.

The unlikely friendship between Syrian refugee Yara (Ebla Mari, left) and English pub owner Tommy Joe “TJ” Ballantyne (Dave Turner, right) sets an example for what’s possible when two individuals find common ground, as seen in “The Old Oak.” Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber.

Then there are the locals, who are mistrustful of the new arrivals, especially when it comes to the prospect of possibly losing what they’ve spent many years building for themselves. Their beliefs passionately reflect that skepticism, and it frequently shows up in their comments and behavior. And, given how much they’ve already lost over the years, their suspicions are somewhat understandable. However, at the same time, they’ve allowed these beliefs to cloud their judgment, camouflaging the bigger picture of what’s going on. Most notably, they’ve become blind to the fact that the refugees in many ways are in the same boat as them – if not worse. If they could come to see that, they might subsequently realize that the “strangers” aren’t as different from them as they think. That commonality thus provides a point of reference that they can build upon in forging a new relationship with one another, the very essence of common ground. Indeed, as an old, time-honored saying maintains, “None of us is as strong as all of us.” With that in mind, then, there’s no telling what these individuals – or any of us, for that matter – can collectively attain.

But, if these two groups are to truly come together, someone needs to act as a facilitator, an individual who embodies the beliefs necessary to bring everyone into the fold. Fortunately, there are several people in this story who can help make that possible. TJ, Yara and Laura are the most obvious candidates, as are TJ’s bartender, Maggie (Jen Patterson), Yara’s mother, Fatima (Amna Al Ali), and a plucky teen, Linda (Ruby Bratton). They urge unity by bringing new and old residents together so that they can get to know one another better and to discover that they may have more in common than initially thought.

Over time, the dividends from this obviously become apparent on a community-wide level. But they also provide benefits to individuals, most notably TJ, thanks to the beliefs he holds and what they manifest for him. These developments represent a turnaround for him. He’s had his fair share of hardships over the years, and he’s always blamed himself for their emergence. For starters, there are his financial difficulties in keeping The Old Oak open, conditions that have become so serious that he’s had to close off the pub’s private party room because he can’t afford the liability insurance to keep it in operation. It has since fallen into disrepair, serving as a storage area. Then there are the issues in his personal life, such as the loneliness that has stemmed from his divorce from a woman he dearly loved and his estrangement from his only child, a son. In fact, his only real companion is his adoring canine friend, Marra (Lola), a stray who unexpectedly appeared at a particularly low point in his life, giving him a renewed sense of purpose and hope for a brighter future. (As TJ explains it, the dog’s name comes from an old coal miner’s term used to describe a friend who always has one’s back, especially in times of need, a name befitting of the lovable pooch given how the two met. It also aptly describes TJ himself and the expanded role he has since come to assume in the lives of the residents of his community.)

Pub owner Tommy Joe “TJ” Ballantyne (Dave Turner) dotes on his closest pal, Marra (Lola the dog), in an otherwise-lonely life in “The Old Oak,” the latest offering from legendary filmmaker Ken Loach, available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber.

This positive reversal in TJ’s fortunes gives him a reason to soldier on, a boost undoubtedly tied to his beliefs in such a possibility, even if he doesn’t cognizantly recognize their presence or impact at the time these changes begin emerging in his life. And this development flourishes when he receives some much-needed assistance, thanks to Yara’s enthusiasm in promoting community unity. Those efforts prove beneficial for both TJ’s business and his spirits, such as when Yara encourages him to draw upon a valuable lesson he learned in his youth. During the coal miners’ labor issues in the 1980s, TJ’s mother urged the strikers to start their days during work stoppages by gathering for a group meal, a gesture designed to strengthen their resolve and commitment to their cause – and one that left quite an impression on a youthful TJ. When TJ shares this story with Yara, she, in turn, implores him to follow suit by organizing a series of free community meals for the locals and the new arrivals, prepared by those same individuals and served in the pub’s private party room, which the participants help him clean and renovate. These events lead to more customers (and more business) for The Old Oak, as well as a greater sense of personal satisfaction for TJ. It’s quite a simple yet eminently successful co-creation, one of many that spring to life as a result of these collaborators finding common ground.

The foregoing examples illustrate what can be achieved by finding unity in one’s beliefs. However, this is not to suggest that everything proceeds swimmingly. Initiatives like these invariably have learning curves associated with them as all the participants in these scenarios seek to refine their intents. Challenges are part of the mix, too, such as the surly attitudes TJ faces in connection with some of his curmudgeonly regulars. They’re angered, for example, when he refuses to let them use the party room for a meeting to protest the refugees’ presence. They point out that they’ve been loyal customers over the years and threaten to stop supporting the pub if he holds out against them. But TJ realizes that such negative beliefs won’t yield the kinds of positive outcomes he’s hoping for, the risk of lost business notwithstanding. He reasons that, considering there are essentially no other drinking establishments in town, the locals are likely to back down on their ill-considered demand. Indeed, blowing smoke often doesn’t get anyone anywhere.

For all these setbacks, though, there are unexpected victories to be had, too, especially when a shift in public attitudes begins to settle in. That happens, for example, when Linda’s mother, Erica (Chrissie Robinson), has a change of heart about Yara. One day, while Linda is participating at a school sporting event that Yara is photographing, the teen falls ill. Yara escorts her home and helps to make her comfortable, getting her something to eat from the family kitchen. As Yara searches the cupboards for food, Erica walks in on her, outraged that this stranger is rummaging through her cabinets. Both Yara and Linda attempt to explain what happened, but Erica will have none of it, hastily ejecting Yara from her home. However, when Erica calms down and takes the time to hear what her daughter has to say, she does an abrupt about-face. Shortly thereafter, when Erica and Yara have a chance public encounter, Erica apologizes profusely – an act that leads to a new friendship between the two. Once again, solidarity wins the day.

Simple gestures like sharing a meal together can go a long way toward forging solidarity, an idea inspired by Syrian refugee Yara (Ebla Mari, center), as seen in filmmaker Ken Loach’s “The Old Oak.” Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber.

A lack of familiarity can produce so many needless problems, especially when it involves individuals about whom we know little or nothing. That lack of understanding can consequently yield issues that plainly aren’t warranted and, more importantly, can be easily dispensed with by simply taking the time to find common ground. Such is the case in what is said to be the final film from legendary director Ken Loach. The unity that emerges among the various constituencies in this film helps bring people together who might not do so otherwise were it not for their efforts to find harmony and shared aims. The style of filmmaking and narrative themes in this offering are classic Ken Loach, recalling many of the works this prolific director has made for nearly 60 years in such films as “Jimmy’s Hall” (2014), “I, Daniel Blake” (2016) and “Sorry We Missed You” (2019), among others. In many ways, “The Old Oak” feels like the perfect send-off for this thought-provoking artist. Some story elements are, admittedly, rather predictable, and the ending feels somewhat truncated and abrupt, with a few story threads that aren’t fully resolved. Nevertheless, the filmmaker makes the kind of parting summation statement that he’s incorporated in his other noteworthy works about the perils of the downtrodden, the need to help them and the necessity for fostering an intrinsic sense of fairness in the lives of us all. And what better way is there for a talent like Loach to say his final goodbye.

While this film hasn’t earned quite as many accolades as his prior efforts, the work has not gone unnoticed. “The Old Oak” was a 2023 Cannes Film Festival nominee for the Palme d’Or, the event’s highest honor. In addition, the picture was a 2023 BAFTA Award nominee for Outstanding British Film. This offering previously played the film festival circuit and had a brief and limited theatrical run but is now available for streaming online from multiple sources, as well as on home media.

If more of us made the kind of effort employed by hopeful souls like TJ, Yara and their kindreds, the world would be a very different place. Indeed, imagine an existence in which we all get along and don’t have to deal with the harmful effects of unnecessary prejudice, discrimination and inequality. Instead, we’d have a reality based on respect, cooperation and mutual support. What we need to recognize, however, is that manifesting a paradigm built on such attributes begins with us, most notably in our thoughts, beliefs and intents. And that’s what needs to change if we ever hope to realize such a result. It seems worth it, but we have to want that to happen. The question, of course, is, do we? Maybe we should consider drawing from the example set by “The Old Oak.” After all, what do we have to lose except what we’re already trying to rid from our lives?

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Probing Life’s Letdowns

When life doesn’t quite turn out as planned, it’s easy to become frustrated, cynical and embittered, falling into a trap of unrelenting wallowing and victimhood from which it’s difficult to escape. It’s disappointing, to be sure, when circumstances don’t pan out as hoped for. But what will staying in such a rut accomplish? An attitude like this doesn’t get us any closer to the goals we want to achieve, so what’s served by it? That’s the harsh reality examined in the edgy romantic comedy-drama, “Shortcomings” (web site, trailer).

Aspiring but unsuccessful filmmaker Ben Tanaka (Justin H. Min) frequently laments that his plans never materialize as hoped for. He’s routinely envious of other rising star directors who have managed to attain career breakthroughs with their movies, works that he perceives to be of inferior quality – mostly highly commercial crowd pleasers that he believes lack depth and meaning. He sees himself as an auteur who wants to create profound, thought-provoking projects, the kind that merit critical acclaim and artistic praise but aren’t likely to sell tickets at the box office, regrettably making them less marketable and not as attractive to would-be backers. Hence the sour grapes.

In the meantime, Ben keeps his hand in the movie business by managing an arthouse theater. It may not be the ideal job for him, but at least it keeps him around the kinds of movies that he loves and would like to make. But is that enough? He doesn’t help his own cause, either, spending much of his free time stretched out on the couch watching Criterion Collection DVDs rather than working on trying to develop his own projects. Where is the ambition in that?

Aspiring filmmaker Ben Tanaka (Justin H. Min, left) and his BFF gal pal Alice Lee (Sherry Cola, right) look for love on two coasts in director Randall Park’s debut feature, “Shortcomings,” available for streaming online. Photo by Jon Pack, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

If Ben’s professional underperformance weren’t bad enough, he’s constantly reminded of that by the professional success of his live-in girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki), who has a satisfying position working for a local Bay Area Asian-American film festival. Miko’s job may not be everything that Ben aspires to, but he certainly sees it as something more rewarding than what he’s doing. And it probably goes without saying that the different success tracks they’re on have increasingly become a source of stress in their relationship. Miko doesn’t flaunt her good fortune over Ben, but he definitely feels like he’s been shortchanged compared to the results she’s achieved, and his constant complaining about that – and unwillingness to do anything about it – are beginning to wear on her.

It doesn’t help that the growing distance between Ben and Miko is fueling his wandering eye. He has always had a thing for blonde Caucasian women, all of whom have typically been unavailable and unattainable, but that hasn’t kept him from looking. Miko has noticed this, too, even though she’s kept quiet about it for some time. However, when the strain in their relationship reaches a point where she’s having trouble continuing to cope with it, she calls him out, a response he’s not prepared for, even though he secretly knows he can’t deny it, either.

Not long thereafter, Miko receives word that she’s been selected for a six-month internship in New York, a tremendous opportunity for her career – and one that she decides to accept. She primarily frames her decision from the perspective that it would be a good move professionally. But she doesn’t hesitate to add that taking some time apart from one another may be a wise decision for the couple, a proposal that Ben doesn’t exactly take issue with, either.

With Miko off to Gotham, Ben is on his own, and he finds himself lonely. He frequently meets with his BFF gal pal, Alice (Sherry Cola), a flamboyant, wisecracking lesbian who freely speaks her mind, especially when comes to matters of the heart. She’s aggressively seeking a soul mate of her own, and her relationship with Ben is often tantamount to an exercise in misery loves company. But Alice doesn’t hold her tongue where Ben is concerned; she can see that he and Miko are having issues that may not be resolved. In light of this, she gives him her blessing to explore other possibilities now that he’s on his own, given that he may not have another opportunity like this once Miko returns.

However, Miko’s return starts to get called into question the longer she’s away. Their phone conversations become more infrequent, and, after a while, she increasingly ignores Ben’s voicemail messages, leaving his calls unreturned altogether. Ben sees this as a signal to follow Alice’s advice and begin playing the field.

Ben leaves himself open to a variety of options, even though he’s a bit rusty when it comes to dating. Nevertheless, that doesn’t deter him, and so he begins seeking out companionship, starting with one of those previously unavailable blonde Caucasian women, Autumn (Tavi Gevinson), an eccentric performance artist. However, even though she may have met his requirements in the looks department, the connection isn’t there, so he looks elsewhere. He soon meets up with Sasha (Debby Ryan), a lesbian who decides to do some experimentation of her own. But this, too, doesn’t unfold as hoped for.

Aspiring filmmaker Ben Tanaka (Justin H. Min, right) and his live-in girlfriend, Miko Hayashi (Ally Maki, left), experience strain in their relationship when things go south professionally and romantically, as seen in the edgy romantic comedy-drama, “Shortcomings.” Photo by Jon Pack, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Ben’s lack of dating success leaves him back where he was when Miko left. He’s also left alone more when Alice begins making some more lasting connections of her own, including one that takes her to the Big Apple to be with her girlfriend, Meredith (Sonaya Mizuno). And, when the theater where Ben’s been working closes down, he suddenly finds himself with plenty of free time on his hands. All of these changes leave Ben pining for Miko again, and, given her diminished contact with him, he’s understandably curious to find out exactly what’s going on with her and what their future might hold. So, with that, he, too, takes off for New York. Little does he know what he’s about to get himself into.

The big question here, of course, is why is Ben’s life turning out as it is? Clearly, he’s not satisfied with the results he’s getting, and he’s seriously disappointed and frustrated by them. Creatively, he knows what he wants to manifest (or at least he thinks he does). And, personally, he’s in love with Miko; otherwise, why would he have put so much time and effort into cultivating their relationship? Or is that just wishful thinking? In fact, isn’t it possible that everything he says he wants is just a pie-in-the-sky dream or, perhaps, something he believes he’s supposed to want for himself? Indeed, maybe these alleged aspirations of his aren’t at all what he really wants. But why the disconnect between goals and outcomes?

In all likelihood, the key in this rests with what he believes, for his beliefs dictate what materializes. Not everyone may have heard of this school of thought, but there are many of us who understand and know how to make use of its principles to achieve what we desire. But, when it comes to Ben, it’s fairly obvious he doesn’t have a clue, and the results speak for themselves.

Because Ben is clinging to beliefs about what he thinks he wants, despite the fact that, deep down, they’re not actually beliefs in what he truly wants, the cause of his dissatisfaction should be plainly apparent. It’s like saying “I really want that sporty red convertible” when his inner self is holding out for a blue SUV. Is it any wonder, then, that the red convertible doesn’t fulfill his needs, wants and desires?

From this, one might naturally ask, how can Ben not see this for himself? And that would indeed be a good question. There could be any number of reasons for this, such as his need to get a life lesson in understanding this fundamental principle about how reality operates. Similarly, it could be that he needs to learn how to eliminate the metaphysical camouflage from his life, ridding himself of whatever is obscuring his ability to see things clearly for himself. In another vein, perhaps he simply needs to grasp how to be honest and truthful with himself, getting past an unfortunate tendency to convince himself into believing in ideas that essentially don’t suit him, a tough one for many individuals in his shoes. Or there could be other possibilities that are only known to him and that many of those on the outside can’t fathom, simply because they can’t fully appreciate or understand his particular circumstances. In any of these cases, however, the bottom line involves his recognition, comprehension and acknowledgement of his beliefs, and, until he’s able to do that, he’s likely to remain stuck in a morass of disappointment and dissatisfaction.

In many regards, these conditions reflect the classic definition of insanity – that of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting but never attaining a different result. If there were such a thing as a sentence to hell, this might well epitomize it. And Ben is yet to figure that out.

When his live-in girlfriend moves across the country for an internship opportunity, aspiring filmmaker/theater manager Ben Tanaka (Justin H. Min, left) begins dating a potential new romantic prospect, Autumn (Tavi Gevinson, right), an eccentric performance artist, in the edgy romantic comedy-drama, “Shortcomings.” Photo by Jon Pack, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

So what is Ben to do? He needs to work the problem by taking several important steps with regard to his beliefs. For starters, he needs to grasp exactly what his beliefs are, not what he thinks they are. This requires embracing concepts like focus, clarity and awareness in analyzing his true beliefs and discarding those that are erroneous. To do this, he needs a good mirror to examine himself and the notions he embraces, and that’s where his friend Alice comes into play. She holds up that looking glass and kindly but assertively forces him to get real with himself. He might not always like what he sees and hears, but this is crucial if he ever hopes to master this step of the process.

One particular area of his life in which Ben needs to become more honest with himself involves his romantic aspirations. As noted previously, he has an undeniable attraction to blonde Caucasian women. But, if that’s truly the case, why is he in a relationship with an Asian woman? Is he sincerely attracted to Miko? Or is he pursuing this partnership because he believes that’s what’s expected of him from a cultural standpoint? At the same time, if he believes that a blonde Caucasian woman is the “right” choice for him, then why doesn’t his budding romance with Autumn pan out? And, when one considers what comes next for him, is he really clear about what he truly wants for himself when he begins dating Sasha, an avowed lesbian? After that, when his feelings for Miko appear to be rekindling, is he really sold on the notion of trying to patch things up with someone who’s no longer returning his phone calls? Clearly he’s drowning in a sea of contradictory, undefined beliefs, none of which seem to be in alignment with what he ultimately wants – and he can’t even bring himself to be honest on this point.

Second, Ben needs to consider other possibilities that he may have overlooked in developing the beliefs to which he adheres. This involves giving serious consideration to alternatives that he hadn’t thought about. This may prompt him to recognize faulty aspirations and, consequently, eliminate them from his beliefs. Adopting new outlooks and perspectives might thus help him turn some important corners, putting him onto more suitable paths. This could be a challenging step, but adopting it might lead to more fulfilling outcomes, probably because they dispense with limitations and impediments that don’t serve him (or us, for that matter) and place him (and us) on a path that’s more authentically aligned with our inner selves.

In particular, a corollary to this step involves taking responsibility for our beliefs and actions, especially when it comes to eliminating victimhood as an excuse for outcomes not resulting as hoped for. As the creators of our existence, the impetus and intents for what manifests, of necessity, begin with us; we’re inherently responsible for what materializes, so blaming others or outside forces when things don’t turn out as planned simply won’t cut it. And, to that end, victimization isn’t an adequate explanation or cause for what happens. We can certainly try to draw upon this notion, but it ultimately just won’t wash – it’s yet another junk belief that can’t be justified as a means to put a good face on a disappointing outcome.

As the film illustrates, Ben has some serious issues in this area. But, if he truly wants to find the source of his dissatisfaction, he needs to look to himself – and his beliefs – for answers. The sooner he realizes this, the sooner he’s likely to put his disappointments behind him, regardless of the area of his life in question. Until that happens, however, he’s again likely to stay stuck awaiting a different outcome that won’t materialize. How insane is that?

The impact of this is considerable, as seen in his professional life. Ben may have grand creative ambitions, but he doesn’t appear to be able to know how to pull them together. As a consequence, he procrastinates, taking virtually no actions to move forward. But that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, either, given that he hasn’t put the beliefs in place to know how to proceed. In essence, his creative vision is almost as unfocused as his expectations in his personal life, and, naturally, this keeps him stuck professionally. Unfortunately, it also leaves him jealous of others’ success, including fellow filmmakers and even Miko, even though her goals don’t match his per se. Consequently, he again falls back into victimhood and an inability to be honest with himself about how to advance. Poor Ben. As noted previously, he really has his work cut out for him.

Aspiring filmmaker Ben Tanaka (Justin H. Min, right) visits his BFF gal pal Alice Lee (Sherry Cola, left) and her girlfriend, Meredith Ames (Sonaya Mizuno, center), on a trip to New York, as depicted in director Randall Park’s debut feature, “Shortcomings,” available for streaming online. Photo by Jon Pack, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Of course, none of this is meant to suggest that he can’t turn things around. But, if that’s to happen, he genuinely needs to overcome his shortcomings. To address this, he must dismiss the letdowns that he believes life has dealt him. However, to do this, he must also realize that those missteps were of his own making – and that he’s the only one who can fix them. If he’s unwilling or unable to accomplish this, the future may not be what he hopes it will be – and that’s more than just a shortcoming.

So what is Ben to do now? That’s what he’s about to find out. However, as this unconventional romantic comedy-drama shows, this unforeseen time by himself proves to be a dual-edged sword, an opportunity for newfound personal freedom but also a time in which he’s forced to get his life back on track, a dicey struggle in many respects – not to mention one filled with ample unanticipated fallout. This smartly written offering is full of eye-opening, unexpected plot twists, but they never feel forced, and they’re often quite revelatory about the protagonist’s true nature. The picture successfully and intriguingly combines multiple genres, including romantic comedies tinged with elements typical of character studies, matinee dramas and hard-hitting social commentaries. Debut director Randall Park has also infused this release with an array of biting one-liners and a pervasively edgy quality when it comes to the true nature of relationships, an attribute not unlike that found in films like “(500) Days of Summer” (2009), “Bros” (2022), “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018), and even such Woody Allen projects as “Manhattan” (1979) and “Annie Hall” (1977). What’s more, “Shortcomings” is not afraid to show the unflattering sides of otherwise-likable characters, a theme frequently seen in the movies of filmmakers like Nicole Holofcener. Because of all this, there’s a certain brusqueness to the narrative and the characters that some viewers might find off-putting, but that’s also one of this production’s innate beauties, serving up an unbridled authenticity not often seen in romcoms. Even though this release had a brief theatrical run late last summer, it’s largely gone unnoticed. Thankfully, however, it’s now available for streaming online and makes for a frank but refreshing watch compared to many other comparable offerings, one that gives us all a lot to think about.

When we come upon aspects of ourselves that we personally dislike, we may try to disavow them. We might pretend they don’t exist, or we may go out of our way to convince ourselves (and actually come to believe) that these excuses are indeed genuine. And, if all else fails, we may seek to justify our circumstances by blaming others, retreating into victimhood knowing that such rationales aren’t valid, even if we try to convince ourselves and others to the contrary. But, in the end, there’s no escaping the truth if we hope to make things right. Failing to do so can be quite a shortcoming indeed – the only thing worse being the consequences that can arise from such a failure. Let’s hope we never have to find that out.

A complete review is available by clicking here. 

Saving At-risk Youth


For many at-risk youth, there comes a turning point where they can head off in one direction or another, each with vastly different long-term outcomes. The results couldn’t be more opposed to one another as far as what ultimately transpires, either a promising future or a destiny full of tragedy and heartache. Steering those individuals in the right direction can be exasperating, too, especially when they can’t envision the consequences of their actions. Fortunately, however, there are guardian angels in human form who just might be able to point them in the right direction, an odyssey explored in the gripping urban drama, “Story Ave” (web site, trailer).

South Bronx graffiti artist Kadir Grayson (Asante Blackk), a gifted teenage illustrator with real talent, is desperately struggling to find himself. He’s having difficulty dealing with his grief over the death of his younger brother, often acting out his frustration, even at times like the family repast in honor of his junior sibling. This conduct, in turn, has led to an inflammatory home life, including difficult relations with his mother, Olivia (Cassandra Freeman), who earnestly says she’s trying to understand him and his feelings (a statement Kadir doesn’t believe), and his stepfather, Reggie (Hassan Johnson), who has little patience for what he considers to be wholly unacceptable behavior. In addition, these conditions have led to further complications, such as Kadir’s growing difficulty at school, necessitating frequent tension-filled meetings with his guidance counselor, Mrs. Chen (Sue Kim).

What’s most troubling, though, is that Kadir’s restlessness has led him to fall in with the wrong crowd, the ruling neighborhood graffiti gang, headed by Sean Skemes Hernandez (Melvin Gregg), the older brother of a classmate, Moe (Alex R. Hibbert). While Moe is generally a good friend, Skemes is bad news. He convinces Kadir that he can help him carry out his graffiti ventures, including providing supplies and protection, in exchange for his assistance in various notorious activities. But, to see if Kadir is worthy of his offer, Skemes gives him a test – go out and pull off a robbery. Skemes doesn’t care who Kadir robs or how he does it as long as he comes away with something of value for his efforts. And, to help him succeed, Skemes gives him a gun.

To prove himself as a worthy gang member, graffiti artist Kadir Grayson (Assante Blackk, right) attempts to hold up New York City transit employee Luis Torres (Luis Guzmàn, left) on a vacant train platform in the gripping urban drama, “Story Ave,” now available for streaming online and home media. Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Being rather small in stature for his age, Kadir is somewhat intimidated by the prospect of this challenge. Even holding the gun seems to be a bigger task than he’s capable of. However, he’s determined to prove himself as a bona fide gang operative, no matter what it takes. So, while standing on a largely vacant train platform one night, he decides to hold up a stranger who’s by himself, Luis Torres (Luis Guzmán), a streetwise New York City transit employee who’s heading home from work.

As the incident unfolds, Luis can see that the young man is clearly in over his head, so he offers Kadir a deal to defuse the situation. Instead of filing charges of attempted robbery, Luis agrees to give him the money he demands in exchange for joining him for a meal and an opportunity to talk. Kadir is skeptical that Luis would willingly hand over his cash as simply as that, unsure of his prospective victim’s motives and wondering whether he’s being set up himself. But, before getting himself in too deep, Kadir relents, and the unlikely duo is soon off to a restaurant.

Luis takes Kadir to his favorite hangout, a diner that’s home to his friend and confidante, Gloria (Coral Peña), a genial waitress who welcomes Kadir with the same good cheer that she extends to her longtime loyal customer. Kadir is puzzled by the kind treatment extended to him by a would-be robbery victim and complete stranger, as it’s unlike what he receives from those in so many other areas of late. His guard is understandably up. However, the more he and Luis talk, the more Kadir’s defenses slowly come down.

The conversation between Luis and Kadir is sincere and sensitive but frank. Luis can see that the young man is confused and in trouble. He also senses that Kadir has genuine talent but that he needs support, understanding and direction, elements that are missing from his life, both at home and definitely in his circle of “friends.” To rectify this, Luis takes Kadir under his wing to help him straighten out his life before it’s too late.

In no time, Kadir is virtually living with Luis. His benefactor provides what’s been lacking from his life. He also helps connect Kadir to an educational opportunity that could enable him to legitimately develop his creative potential rather than having to rely on the dangerous ways of being a graffiti artist. He even receives inspiration from Gloria, who introduces Kadir to her artist boyfriend, Ade (Ade Otukoya), and newfound backing from Mrs. Chen, who helps him pursue his new schooling option. It’s quite a turnaround in a relatively short time.

In turn, Luis, who lives alone and has obvious challenges of his own, such as failing health and something of a drinking problem, gets back from his new friend what he gives out. Luis also appreciates the company, given that it appears he’s been lonely for some time and for reasons that he’s quietly hesitant to discuss. But, despite the growth and blossoming of their relationship, something is seemingly and increasingly amiss. And, when those revelations surface, all the progress that has been made threatens to unravel.

Will Kadir continue to get his life on track, or will he backslide into the problems he has been trying to leave behind? This is yet another critical turning point in the young man’s life, making clear just how much risk is present in the lives of at-risk youth. But, as becomes apparent as this story unfolds, the aid of others can only go so far in eliminating those pitfalls, as it’s the youths themselves who must decide which paths they ultimately choose to pursue. So what will Kadir choose? That remains to be seen.

To defuse an attempted robbery, New York City transit employee Luis Torres (Luis Guzmàn, left) offers to give money to the would-be thief, graffiti artist Kadir Grayson (Assante Blackk, right), in exchange for a meal and opportunity to talk in writer-director Aristotle Torres’s debut feature, “Story Ave,” now available for streaming online and home media. Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Where Kadir goes from here is, of course, up to him. But that decision will depend entirely on what he believes about life and the direction it should take. Given his circumstances, he’s clearly at a crossroad with very different destinations in store. He could opt for a bright future with tremendous potential for artistic expression, a life in which he and his work are respected, appreciated and valued, supported by people who care about his well-being, including his new allies and maybe even his own family. Or he could slide back into the bitterness, anger and frustration that characterized his life before these newfound possibilities emerged and drove him into the hands of bad influences. The question for him is, which one will he embrace?

Kadir’s beliefs about these choices are crucial, as they will dictate what materializes in his life. It’s unlikely Kadir has heard of this school of thought or its principles, but he’s at a point where he needs to carefully evaluate his beliefs and the options they represent, because they’re likely to yield very different, diametrically opposed outcomes.

In essence, Kadir needs to wise up fast. He needs to take a step back and objectively look at what each path has to offer. Hanging out with gangbangers may provide thrills and excitement and feed his need for lashing out against those whom he thinks have wronged him. But what kind of long-term prospects does that course present? The danger-filled life that Skemes is leading should give Kadir a good idea of what he might face if he chooses to follow suit. Is that what he really wants?

By contrast, pursuing the options that Luis, Gloria, Mrs. Chen and Olivia have sought to help provide presents Kadir with a much more promising future, one in which the hazards of street life are fundamentally absent. This course might be more conventional and force Kadir to clean up his act, which would certainly take some effort on his part. It would also likely require him to confront the issues that have been troubling him, a step that he might not be willing to take and could even push him into eating some foul-tasting crow. Those measures may be unpalatable enough to keep him from following through on this option. But, if he concertedly takes the time to assess the eventual results of these two courses, he could come to realize which one has the better long-term prospects.

The steps Kadir needs to take could indeed be major stumbling blocks in choosing the better path. He may believe that they’re too painful and call for too much work, and that’s understandable, especially for someone of his age and limited life experience. However, if he passes on this option, things could turn out badly and he’d still be left without resolution to the problems that have been dogging him to begin with. That would seem like a doubly dubious outcome, but is he cognizant enough to recognize this and invest workable beliefs into this situation to improve his circumstances?

With his classmate Maurice Moe Hernandez (Alex R. Hibbert, left), South Bronx graffiti artist Kadir Grayson (Assante Blackk, right) embarks on a potentially perilous journey in the gripping urban drama, “Story Ave.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

This is where having allies helps. Positive influences like those mentioned previously can prove quite beneficial in guiding Kadir to make the right choices, to take the risk out of being an at-risk youth. By working with Luis, Gloria, Mrs. Chen and Olivia, Kadir can draw upon their wisdom and insights as valuable sounding boards, helping to steer him in the right direction and to formulate beneficial beliefs for creating a better future. Such collaborations can lead to effective co-creations that set Kadir on the right track for tomorrow. We can only hope he’s paying attention – and that he avails himself of the assistance that’s open to him.

“Story Ave” is an uplifting and heartwarming tale, albeit somewhat clichéd and predictable at times, especially when it comes to the overlong wait for certain all-too-entirely expected revelations to surface. Nevertheless, director Aristotle Torres’s debut feature provides viewers with more than its share of time-honored wisdom and hope for those who could easily end up following a different and more destructive course. The fine performances of Blackk and Guzmán convincingly sell the material, which is presented with compelling cinematography and film editing, though the sound quality could stand some definite improvement, particularly in the opening half-hour, when the dialogue becomes almost unintelligible at times. Still, there’s much to be said for the insights served up in this intergenerational coming of age drama, proving that there’s always a possibility to set things right, even when they seem to be headed in an irretrievable downward spiral. And that’s a “story” that’s more than just a street name. The film is available for streaming online and on home media.

Life is filled with turning points, though some are decidedly more important than others. That’s especially true for us while we’re in our adolescence, a time when the template for the rest of our lives is often being put into place. And, if that weren’t difficult enough in itself, it can be further complicated when we attempt to do so under trying circumstances, as Kadir’s experience so graphically shows. These conditions thus illustrate the significance of understanding our beliefs, for they play a huge role in understanding ourselves and why our lives have turned out as they have – and are likely to turn out going forward. There’s inherent risk in that for all of us, but the degree of that risk can be turned up if we fail to get a grip on how and why we arrive at where we stand. Fortunately, we have the means to figure our way out, provided that we’re willing to put in the time and effort to do so – and to willingly write a story with a happy ending.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

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