Movie review by Greg Carlson
A flashy coming-of-age tale with miles of charm, “ATL” plays largely like a cross between “American Graffiti” and “Boyz N the Hood.” Following the fortunes and misfortunes of a close-knit group of friends about to graduate from high school in Atlanta, “ATL” marks the feature directorial debut of music video wizard Chris Robinson. Despite a slapdash screenplay by Tina Gordon Chism based on a story by Antwone Fisher (who already turned his own life story into the script for the same-named film of 2002), “ATL” coasts by on the charm of its attractive cast, which includes several untested Atlanta-based thespians.
Juggling an array of characters and subplots, “ATL” sticks mainly with Rashad (Tip Harris, a.k.a. T.I.), a sullen young man who has been looking out for younger brother Ant (Evan Ross) since the death of their mother and father. Rashad and Ant live with their irritable uncle George (an engaging Mykelti Williamson), a wise-cracking janitor who spends an unreasonable amount of time trying to keep his sugary cereal hidden from his nephews. Rashad’s best friends include Esquire (Jackie Long), who is just an eyelash away from getting into an Ivy League school, Brooklyn (Albert Daniels), who never lets his pals forget he hails from NYC, and Teddy (Jason Weaver), who appears poised to finally earn his diploma following several attempts.
The quartet hangs out every Sunday evening at the Cascade, an old-school roller rink, where they cruise girls, slurp sodas, and work on their team skate routine in preparation for an annual contest. Robinson initially builds up the roller skating angle, introducing a variety of teams with colorful costumes and nicknames, but unlike the similar “Roll Bounce,” ditches the competition as a major plot point. Instead, the movie sets up a melodramatic sidebar involving Ant’s decision to deal drugs for the frightening Marcus (perfectly embodied by Antwan “Big Boi” Patton of OutKast).
“ATL’s” most successful storyline revolves around Rashad and the beautiful New-New (Lauren London), who keeps a secret that threatens the stability of their budding relationship. New-New is one of the film’s strongest characters, but Robinson waits far too long to address her predicament, which overlaps with Esquire’s own difficulties with local millionaire John Garnett (Keith David). “ATL” hints at more interesting commentary on upward mobility and the challenge of holding on to one’s credibility when traveling between slums and mansions, but Robinson is content to merely keep it on the surface.
Robinson does a credible job of capturing the vibe of Atlanta, and the movie benefits from an excellent soundtrack. Visually, however, the director falls back on too many music video tricks – especially the reliance on a multitude of rapid cuts – which burdens scenes with a busy, distracting quality when calm is required. Robinson also rushes the resolution, which sticks with a comfortable predictability cutting across the numerous story threads that require closure. Defying the odds, however, “ATL” manages to step nimbly around many of its potential pitfalls, and the end result is an entertaining diversion buoyed by fresh performances across the board.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/3/06.