Warner Bros. // 2006 // 107 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Neal Masri (Retired) // July 24th, 2006
A new American story
An ensemble cast tells the story of what it's like to grow up in the ATL. No, not the airport -- the whole city.
Rashad (Tip "T.I." Harris) is orphaned and lives with his brother Antwone (Evan Ross) in the care of their uncle. Rashad is nearing high school graduation. His three closest friends are also nearing graduation and each seems to be on a very different path. Esquire (Jackie Long, Lovewrecked) is a top-notch student with dreams of the Ivy League. Brooklyn (Albert Daniels) works a series of low-paying menial jobs and is unsure of what his future holds. Teddy (Jason Weaver, The Ladykillers) is a high school playa who has never been outside Atlanta.
These four friends live for Sunday nights at the roller rink. There, they meet their friends, rivals, and the ladies. One girl, New New (Lauren London), catches Rashad's eye. New New appears to be the girl of Rashad's dreams, but she has a secret that could endanger their relationship. Big changes are coming after high school, and how this group of friends comes to terms with the changes is the main focus of the film.
Has there ever been a city more torn between its past and its future than Atlanta? Consider a scene where a leading black businessman is relaxing with a drink in a country club. As he sips his brandy and puffs his cigar, the camera pulls back to reveal a lovely oil painting of a confederate soldier. These conflicting images of Atlanta are a recurring motif throughout the movie. The opening credits of ATL alternate between postcard images of Atlanta, the modern downtown business district, palatial homes in places like Buckhead, a confederate flag, and rough and tumble images of Mechanicsville in Atlanta's south side where the film is set.
What I expected after the opening credits was yet another "It's Hard Out There for a Pimp" urban crime drama. Thankfully, that isn't what I got. ATL is an oft told story of a young group of friends at a turning point in their lives. The movie works because the lives of these teenagers ring true. Rashad and his pals kill time hanging around at the Waffle House. Their day-to-day concerns don't rise above the level of ogling the local girls or figuring out who gets to ride in the front seat.
Every Sunday night Rashad and his friends can be found at The Cascade, the local roller rink. These scenes at the Cascade are where the movie feels most alive. The packed rink with flashing lights and pumping music make for some wonderfully high-energy scenes. The film, however, does not forget to take a few quiet moments to let the characters develop.
First time director Chris Robinson has an obvious affection for his characters. Everyone in the large ensemble gets a chance to shine and all the storylines are given a chance to progress. A film like this succeeds or fails based on the viewer's investment in the characters. Fortunately, we do care about what happens to our protagonists. A young cast who seem very relaxed and natural in front of the camera helps the film immensely. Most of the young actors are newcomers and they appear to be quite a talented bunch. As far as the adult actors in the movie, Mykelti Williamson (Forrest Gump) and Keith David (The Chronicles of Riddick) have made careers out of turning in solid supporting character work and they both do so here.
Rappers turned actors have become such a staple of modern movies that they should now be handing out SAG cards along with the advance on your first hip hop album. Musician have a history of decidedly mixed results in the movies so I'm always a bit wary of the latest pop stars making the leap to the silver screen. The young musicians in this film acquit themselves nicely. Granted, none appears to be stretching their range very much.
ATL does not linger on thug life or the undercurrents of socio-economic disparity in American society. Both of these themes are on the peripheral edges of the film but they are not the focus. The central concerns of ATL are the hopes and dreams of four good kids who aren't sure what the future holds. That character driven sensibility and deft handling of the challenges facing urban youth made this film an unexpected treat.
The Dolby Digital track mainly highlights the virtually non-stop music of the soundtrack. Colors are bright and vivid (especially in the disco light and neon lit scenes at The Cascade). All in all ATL receives a solid technical presentation.
Six deleted scenes are included, and most are very brief. All but two look to be slight trims from existing scenes. The remaining two, one involving the gang at church, and a heart to heart between Rashad and his little brother are worth a look. A featurette titled In The Rink -- A Director's Journey is a pretty typical making-of piece chronicling the genesis of the project, casting, and filming. Also included is a video by rapper and star of ATL Tip "T.I." Harris.
While watching ATL I was reminded more than once of American Graffiti. The ensemble cast, the group of young friends finishing high school, and an elusive dream girl are just a few of the commonalities between the two movies. The bittersweet, almost elegiac tone of the ending cements the similarity between these two movies.
The coming-of-age saga is a universal movie subject and you can see it repeated over the years in the work of usually young, up-and-coming filmmakers. It seems each generation wants coming-of-age stories told in their vernacular and in their milieu. For my parents it was films like The Graduate or the aforementioned American Graffiti. For me it was the early films of John Hughes and Say Anything. ATL admirably picks of the mantle of the coming-of-age film for another generation and does so with wit, heart, and grace.
A commentary would have been a welcome addition to ATL. I especially enjoy hearing commentaries from first-time directors because they usually discuss their influences and inspirations. This film looks like a good candidate for a double dip down the road.
I was pleasantly surprised by ATL. It's a story with heart and with endearing characters. This type of coming-of-age tale is one that has been told many times, but clichés are OK when executed well. This is a promising debut for director Chris Robinson. I look forward to seeing more of his work.
Review content copyright © 2006 Neal Masri; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* T.I. Music Video
* Deleted Scenes
* In The Rink -- A Director's Journey
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site