ATL (2006) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for drug content, language, sexual material, and violence
Running Time: 105 min.
Cast: T.I, (Tip Harris), Lauren London, Jackie Long, Keith David, Evan Ross, Albert Daniels, Mykelti Williamson, Big Boi (Antwan Andre Patton), Jason Weaver, Khadjiah, Malika, April Clark, Bone Crusher (Wayne Hardnett)
Director: Chris Robinson
Screenplay: Tina Gordon Chism
ATL (its name derived from the abbreviation for Atlanta, Georgia) tells the story of several young African-American high school students from the poorer side of town in the last year of school before going out into the "real world". There's the talented Rashad (rapper T.I.'s debut performance) and his little brother Ant (Ross -- Diana Ross's son), whose parents were lost in a car crash, leaving them to be raised by their ornery uncle George (Williamson, Lucky Number Slevin). They are friends to Esquire (Long), who needs to get a letter of recommendation to have a chance at getting to a good college. New New (London) is the girl Rashad falls for, but she might end up hurting him in the end, but not as much as Ant when he turns to a life of fast money as a drug dealer. They like to go to the local roller rink to blow off steam, but with all that's going on, their friendships seem to be fated for a collapse.
Although the storyline is a bit muddled, ATL has just enough good moments to eke out a modest recommendation for those interested in the subject matter. While at its core, the film is a coming-of-age film, it never really plays as one. Mostly, it's a series of interconnected scenes in the lives of several young men, covering such things as peer pressure, acceptance, drugs, sexuality, and being proud (or ashamed) of where you come from. It's about many things, but not really about any one thing in particular, which does make it a very unfocused effort that had the potential to be much more.
Tina Gordon Chism (Drumline) builds her script on the original story by Antwone Fisher (yes, the same one that wrote the screenplay for the film that bears his name), with a good ear for the lingo and attitudes that represent the area. The characters are likeable, but drawn with broad strokes, mainly serving a purpose as archetypes that each represent a conflict within the community. Although all of the main characters are basically good people, they each succumb to common pitfalls in order to try to climb out of their existence. Esquire sees himself as getting out of the ghetto, while New New tries her best to be seen as from it. Ant sees the ease by which he can get the money that has been causing the other members of his family to always break their backs, while Rashad has an inner fire that has no direction, threatening to burn him up from the inside out. The grass always seems greener on the other side, and with so many around trying to be something they can never be, it's hard to know just who you are. In the end, you either learn to find your own path, or you get swallowed up by the city, becoming more entrenched in a trapped existence as each day passes to the next.
Music video director Chris Robinson certainly has a talent for the visual components, and the overall vibe, atmosphere, and dramatic punch feed off of the energy he provides through his energetic editing and visual effects components tossed in to frame each scene. He knows what works visually and what doesn't, as well as what music will work best for each scene, bolstered by a solid soundtrack featuring mostly local Atlanta artists (including T.I. himself). The only downside to Robinson's technique is that, while he certainly performs well when shooting the good times and a party atmosphere, his capturing of the direness of the city streets and the day-to-day drama leaves a bit to be desired. Although there are serious themes running throughout ATL, they sometimes are glossed over in a fairly sitcom fashion. Even moments where life and death are on the line never really seem to hold the gravity they should, perhaps because the characterizations aren't very deep.
Somewhere in this mish-mash of interesting ideas, visual energy, and resonant themes, a truly good movie yearns to come out, but never quite does. There are a handful of scenes that save the picture from being completely vacuous, mainly dealing with Rashad and his inability to understand why his family and friends always seem to sell themselves short in order to have the semblance of getting ahead. Perhaps if the film had concentrated more on introspective elements, such as Rashad and his internal difficulties in growing from a boy into a man, instead of constantly distracting us with side stories -- Esquire's quest for the path to success, New New's fence-sitting between the ghetto and the mansion, Ant's seduction into materialism, and the roller skating competition that never really materializes -- it would have been a more compelling movie about Atlanta's lower class areas, and the ups and downs of life there. I suppose when a music video director is making his first film, his natural inclination is to never linger too long in sullen contemplation before kicking out another jam for our ear holes or flashy party montage to catch our eye.
Like the hip hop music that comes from the city of Atlanta itself, ATLis vibrant, catchy, and easy to take in, but it seeks to entertain more than inspire. For a film exploring heady issues surrounding class struggles, it doesn't always traverse the best avenues to its destination.
©2007 Vince Leo