Life in Georgia has not been kind to 17 year-old Rashad (Tip Harris). Stuck in a dead-end job and left to care for his younger brother Ant (Evan Ross), Rashad passes the time hanging with his friends at the local roller rink and dreaming of starting his own cartoon strip. With a new girl (Lauren London) in his life, and his friends finding success, things are looking up. But when Ant falls under the influence of a drug lord (Antwan Andrea Patton, better known as Big Boi from Outkast), Rashad struggles to help, feeling the confident grip on his predictable, routine life slipping away.
"ATL" is a motion picture equipped with fresh ideas for a dying genre, not a simple, tired feature length lament for the current problems facing this generation of African-Americas. "ATL" peels back that layer of formula to examine the beating heart of a tight community and their emotionally charged life choices.
There's no doubt that "ATL" is wading in very familiar waters. Stories of inner-city strife are a dime a dozen, but what if there was a director who wasn't afraid to buck convention just a little bit? A veteran of hip-hop videos, director Chris Robinson makes his feature debut with "ATL," and it's a real achievement, and not for purely technical reasons.
"ATL" is an atypical urban film that focuses on character and community, leaving melodramatic theatrics to the very end, when it feels it has to surrender to cliché to survive. But for 90 minutes, this film is incredibly light on its toes, occasionally hilarious, and totally respectful to its audience. Would you believe the film has almost no cursing? That there's only a single utterance of the N-word? Amazing.
Written by Tina Gordon Chism ("Drumline"), the picture seeks to grab that sweaty, sticky Atlanta vibe, where days feels like years and every week is eagerly capped off by a Sunday night showdown at the roller rink. "ATL" looks to put the viewer right alongside these chummy personalities and locations in a low tech, but memorable fashion.
Chism and Robinson achieve that personable feeling of the neighborhood where these kids live, as they form alliances and fight enemies, hoping to maintain their community stature. By taking time to explore each character, and select locations that feel interconnected, it makes the film's eventual move to an exploited youth arc feel organic to the rest of the proceedings. And that's not an easy feat. Robinson deftly connects his scenes, paying close attention to cinematic flow and spirit, and casting believable kids who want nothing more than to impress their peers and the opposite sex. Chism is there to give the characters a conscience, and in most cases, honest-to-God responsibility. My heart nearly stopped during a scene where Rashad teaches Ant the merits of working an honest job and saving your money. Remind me again why people were throwing Oscars and kudos at "Hustle & Flow?"
In the final 30 minutes, Robinson falls prey to overly dramatic conclusions to the myriad of subplots, and his idea to throw some spoken word poetry over a hospital sequence is a clunky one to say the least. The picture ends soft, but that doesn't erase what "ATL" accomplished with a very tiny budget and strong head on its shoulders. This is a superb film with a lot to say about people, not stereotypes. And it does so with vigor and intelligence, not a crushing need to play to the lowest common denominator.
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