It's apparent that Chris Robinson, who makes his feature directing debut on "ATL," hails from the music video world. He rewards short attention spans with flashy images and even more colorful characters, but has yet to find his narrative rhythm. The end product is rather confusing, partly because of the distracting visual style and partly because Robinson doesn't allow the audience to process one plot/character before moving on to the next.
"ATL" depicts modern-day Atlanta as two opposing sides: the "real" world on the wrong side of the tracks and the rather hypocritical world of privilege enjoyed by the comfortably wealthy. Our hero Rashad, played by rapper T.I., surrounds himself with friends of varying ambitions: Teddy (Jason Weaver) a frivolous-minded guy with a blinged-out grill; Brooklyn (Albe Daniels), a former New Yorker who can't hold down a job; and Esquire (Jackie Long), who aspires to belong to the country club where he works.
Rashad doesn't have it easy. His parents were killed in an accident, and Uncle George (Mykelti Williamson) isn't the most reliable guardian. Money is scarce, leading his little brother Ant (Evan Ross) to go into "business" dealing drugs for local bad boy Marcus (Antwan "Big Boi" Patton). The only bright spots for Rashad are his hidden love of cartooning, the ghetto fabulous girl New-New (Lauren London) and skating on Sunday nights at Cascade, where "Inside here, it's like our problems don't exist."
The film's heart is in the right place, proposing numerous but uninspired coming of age-type messages. Don't pretend to be rich, when you're ghetto (and vice versa). Earn money honestly. Follow your dreams. To become a man, leave behind childish things. Once again though, the many directions in the film diminish its power and focus.
Robinson claims the film isn't a roller skating movie, but he sets up Cascade as the venue for social interaction, revelations and reputations. New-New confides that the way a guy skates "tells me everything I need to know about a man." Cliques, complete with matching outfits and signature choreography, are training for the big showdown. But when the film veers into other plots and never follows through with the contest, the viewer feels cheated. The inevitable comparisons will be made to Bow Wow's starring vehicle "Roll Bounce," which had more success blending the personal story into the skating world.
Although it's not a hard and fast rule, it seems that performers from the rap/hip-hop/R&B world are making the transition to film remarkably well. Like Robinson and T.I., many of the players come from the music world and make their acting debuts in the film. While "ATL" doesn't have many new ideas in it, these newcomers give the film freshness and energy without self-consciousness.
The film isn't as bewilderingly niche as "Madea's Family Reunion," but outsiders unfamiliar with Atlanta's burgeoning music scene will still find "ATL's" attitudes and slang alien despite the universal themes.
Southern coming-of-age tale is flashy, but unfocused
Lauren London and rapper T.I. in 'ATL'
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