There’s isn’t much you haven’t already seen in “ATL,” except perhaps the Atlanta setting. This is basically your standard-issue tale of brothers confronting the troubles of inner-city existence, trying to maintain their neighborhood friendships as their high school years approach their end, resisting the seductions of the gangsta life, and dealing with the pangs of romance. It’s a curious hybrid of coming-of-age comedy and gritty “Boyz in the Hood” drama, with oddly stereotypical elements alternating with vaguely menacing moments and hopeful messages about being true to yourself. And though the disparate bits and pieces don’t fit together very comfortably, they all share one characteristic: they’re formulaic. It’s just that they come from an assortment of different formulas.
Still, the target audience may be drawn to the auditorium by the presence of the newest rapper to make his way to a starring role on the screen, Tip Harris (known in the music biz as “T.I.”), who plays Rashad, the older of the two orphaned brothers living with their not-so-responsible uncle (Mykelti Williamson) and a straight arrow working long hours in maintenance and determined to keep his younger sibling Ant (Evan Ross Naess) on the right path (to college). The favorite meeting place for him and his pals–including drop-out Teddy (Jason Weaver), New Yorker Brooklyn (Albert Daniels) and ambitious Esquire (Jackie Long), who works at the local golf course and has used its address to win entrance to a prestigious school–is the local roller skating rink. It’s there that he meets New New (Lauren London), ostensibly a sassy girl from the hood but actually Erin, the daughter of rich businessman John Garnett (Keith David), whom Esquire has been cultivating; she’s adopted the persona because her dad, though coming from the South Side himself, wants to bury his background and save his kid from its influences. What follows is pretty predictable. Rashad will feel wronged when he finds out about Erin’s deception, and lash out as well at his buddy Esquire, who was aware of her real identity but didn’t tell him. Meanwhile Ant falls in with local drug lord Marcus (Antwan Andre Patton, aka Big Boi of the duo Outkast), starts selling on campus, and gets into serious trouble. The last act revolves around a couple of questions: Can Rashad overcome his anger about Erin’s deception and forgive her and Esquire? And can he rescue Ant from Marcus’ clutches?
“ATL” is certainly an earnest picture, and it’s directed by Chris Robinson with surprising restraint for a person with a background in music videos. The cast is personable if not exceptional, with Harris, for example, easily proving a more charismatic screen presence than 50 Cent did in his recent acting foray, even though he does seem to be damping down the energy level at some points. The domestic relationships among Rashad, Ant and Uncle George are engagingly–and occasionally strongly–drawn. And the character of Esquire is a solid one, well played by Long.
But the entire subplot involving Erin/New New and her father comes across as forced and farfetched–a narrative device that’s too cute for its own good. In fact, the way Erin is portrayed is unhappily characteristic of the movie’s overall treatment of women, who are regularly made to appear either brainless (as with the two party girls who show up periodically) or shrieking banshees (their mother). And the material about Ant’s seduction by Marcus, though decently enough played (with Patton doing a smooth job), comes across as awfully familiar. As for the roller skating stuff, it can’t hold a candle to the action we saw in “Roll Bounce,” which was obviously a very different sort of film, but a much more enjoyable one.
Technically this isn’t an especially smooth production, but the grittiness fits. And devotees of a particular style of contemporary music will undoubtedly appreciate the assortment of songs that accompany Aaron Zigman’s background score.
So “ATL” isn’t contemptible. It deals with serious issues without sensationalism and doesn’t descend into bathos. But neither does it bring any new insight to the plight of inner-city youth, and in the end it doesn’t manage the tricky business of melding the comic and dramatic elements to best effect. The goal’s a good one, but the aim proves somewhat wayward.