ATL (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For every dozen-or-so teen-based dramas about white kids, there are maybe one or two similarly themed films about children of other races. So when one of the latter comes along that offers keenly observed characters involved in interesting situations, it's worth taking note. ATL, the feature debut of MTV-weaned director Chris Robinson, is such a motion picture. And, like all good movies of this sort, it doesn't take long for the viewer to become color-blind, no longer regarding the protagonists as "black characters" but simply as "characters."

ATL, which expectedly takes place in Atlanta, focuses on two brothers. Since the death of their parents, 17-year old Rashad (Tip Harris) and 14-year old Ant (Evan Ross), have been living with their uncle, George (Mykelti Williamson), who is a less-than-ideal guardian. As a result, Rashad has been as much a father as a big brother to Ant. The two have different approaches to life. Rashad is a hard-worker who toils away at a cleaning job to save money for his brother's future education. Ant, on the other hand, is looking for flashy clothes and a cool car, so he takes the "easy" road and becomes a gofer and small-time drug dealer for a gangsta.

Outside of school, Rashad hangs out with his "posse": Esquire (Jackie Long), who has the grades to attend an Ivy League college; Teddy (Jason Weaver), a high school drop out who works in a shop fitting customers for "grills" (ornamental tooth covers); and Brooklyn (Albert Daniels), a New York transplant. These four spend their Sunday evenings at a local roller skating rink where they prepare for the annual "bragging rights" contest. While there, Rashad hooks up with New-New (Lauren London), a girl with a secret. Meanwhile, Esquire connects with powerful CEO John Garnett (Keith David) in the hope he can get a recommendation - the final piece that will seal his university admission.

While the story contains a lot of familiar beats, the characters are fresh and exhibit solid development. And, although the film eventually ventures into terrain where many urban high school dramas end up - violence associated with criminal activity - other issues are addressed along the way. The most compelling of these is the class struggle that occurs within the black community. While most of the inner city lower class are trying to find a way out, one girl with a privileged background is re-inventing herself to find a way in. The roller rink, a relic of the '80s that is still popular in some places, proves to be the mixing pot for all different people, and it's where several of ATL's most memorable scenes occur. In a way, this locale is to this film what the disco was to Saturday Night Fever - a place of escape where class boundaries are secondary to performing skills.

Robinson has assembled an impressive young cast comprised primarily of rappers (such as Tip Harris, a.k.a. T.I.) and fresh faces (newcomer Lauren London). Providing experience in supporting roles are Mykelti Williamson and Keith David. For his part, Robinson directs in a straightforward manner, eschewing the flashy style that has become commonplace for music video directors who make the leap to the big screen. His approach, the talent of his acting ensemble, and the intelligence of the screenplay make ATL an engaging experience.

ATL (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2006-03-31
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1