ATL takes a look at a group of high school friends in Atlanta who are on the verge of graduation and struggling to break free from the shackles of poverty. Rashad (Tip Harris) and his younger brother Anton have lost their parents, and they've spent the past couple of years with a middle-aged uncle seemingly more concerned in keeping tabs on how much cereal the kids are wolfing down than playing the role of Idyllic Father Figure. Rashad is a talented artist who secretly dreams of drawing a comic for the Sunday paper, sweeping floors with his uncle to squirrel away a little money in the meantime. Ant's dazzled by the enormous rims and mega-carat jewelry he sees on MTV and wants the quick and not so respectable way to fame and fortune that so many gangsta rappers have boasted about.
Rashad's friends are each trying to find their own way out too, be it through an Ivy League education or by making gold teeth, but no matter what they have schemed for the future, they still have to claw their way through the present. Their way of passing the muggy Atlanta nights is by roller skating at the local rink, gearing up for a 'skate wars' contest they're determined to win. Rashad is too occupied with the contest and a cute, hyperconfident, and somewhat secretive girl at The Cascade to notice the dark path his brother is starting to take. The movie spends nearly as much time with Rashad's friend Esquire, a 4.0 student whose only barriers to the Ivy League are his less-than-reputable address and his parents' limited connections with the power elite. The polite, well-dressed Esquire thinks he's found the answer to his prayers when he impresses a successful corporate executive (Keith David), but this too presents its own set of moral quandries.
ATL shrugs off a lot of the usual hip-hop-influenced movie cliches, not getting bogged down by gritty despair or wasting much time on the whole thug-life routine. It's a movie with actual characters, not rapsploitation cliches, so there are no bottles of Cristal, virtually no profanity, and -- until the very end -- not even a gun. Because ATL has a lot of respect and affection for its characters, the audience does too. These teenagers are smartly written and have a good bit of depth, and although the cast is predominately young and inexperienced, they handle themselves capably on-screen. The city of Atlanta is itself a character; the movie is based loosely on the lives of a couple of producers who grew up there, and ATL was entirely shot in and around the city. It's a movie as much about the struggles of a community as much as it is these specific characters, and one of the usual stand-ins like Vancouver or Prague would never work believably in its place.
Its take on the financial divide in the black community is intriguing; not in the sense of chasing gaudy jewelry or 24 inch rims, although that's briefly examined too, but in the way the poor and the wealthy look at each other with a sort of disdain, viewing those who try to cross the boundaries that separate them as a sort of betrayal. It also (gasp!) values hard work and determination as the path to a better life instead of peddling drugs, getting caught up in gunfights, or rapping, all without hamfistedly delivering the message like an afterschool special.
Considering that ATL counts down week by week until the big skate-off, the climax doesn't exactly take the direction you'd expect. Still, after the way the rest of the movie plays, the melodramatic resolutions to the dangling storylines right before the credits roll are a little too convenient and conventional. As an amateur movie reviewer, that may grate a bit, but it's a minor concern, and it's hard to be disappointed that characters I like wind up living happily ever after.
ATL respects its characters and doesn't pander to any one audience; it should play well to a diverse crowd, regardless of ethnicity, musical tastes, and even age. It's a movie that I can actually fathom parents and their teenage kids seeing together without the adults watching in abject horror or the kids continually rolling their eyes. ATL doesn't set out to reinvent the coming of age film, but it bucks convention just enough that it doesn't feel like a movie I've watched a couple dozen times already, and the characters are well-drawn and so likeable that I couldn't help but get wrapped up in their story. The meager extras and hefty sticker price for this HD DVD may be offputting, and I don't think I'd go so far as to say ATL is a movie that people need to rush out and buy, but this disc is certainly at least worth a rental.
Video: ATL is a combo release, meaning that there's a standard definition version on one side of the disc that'll work in any regular DVD player, and the flipside sports the 2.40:1 high definition presentation reviewed here. ATL stands out as one of the strongest looking HD DVDs to date, regardless of the fact that combo discs currently only have half the capacity of a traditional HD DVD. The image is bright and colorful, with the vivid costume design contributing to most of the palette's vibrancy. That vocal group of gearheads who can't stomach film grain may also want to take note that there's little-to-none to be found in ATL. I've watched several bloated, big-budget action flicks in high definition over the past few days, and this HD DVD of a small, under-the-radar film about a group of teenagers roller skating in Atlanta had more moments that wowed me than any of those; the clarity and the level of fine detail are almost startling. Thoroughly impressive.
Audio: The hip-hop scattered around the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtrack packs an unbelievable low-frequency wallop, constantly dishing out a resounding boom that rattles everything in sight. It's not the most immersive mix, reserving the surrounds primarily to reinforce the music, but the audio's dynamic range is impressive, and ATL's dialogue doesn't get buried in all the crunk. Other audio options include a 5.1 Spanish dub and subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
Supplements: ATL's extras, all of which are on the standard definition side of the disc, are anchored by the half-hour "In the Rink: A Director's Journey". This lengthy featurette takes the place of a traditional audio commentary, running through every facet of production with director Chris Robinson and most of the cast and crew. Five minutes of deleted scenes -- a few good laughs that were probably trimmed out for time -- are also included, and a music video for T.I.'s "What You Know" and an anamorphic widescreen trailer round out the extras.
Conclusion: ATL is a coming of age drama that respects both its characters and its audience, and even if certain plot elements seem overly familiar, its characters are so well-rendered and likeable that I really didn't mind. Frequently funny, effectively dramatic, and never pandering or condescending, ATL is a much better film than the trailers and TV spots would have you believe. The HD DVD isn't teeming with extras, but the quality of the video and the sound are, to varying degrees, demo-worthy. Deserving of a rental, and when the sticker price eases back, it'd be worth considering as a purchase. Recommended.
The usual disclaimer: the screengrabs in this review were lifted from the DVD side of the disc to liven up what would otherwise be an awfully bland design and don't necessarily reflect the appearance of the movie on HD DVD.