Say this for the new coming-of-age flick ATL: It makes for great trailer material. In his movie debut, hip-hop video director Chris Robinson lavishes so much fancy camerawork on the ordinary Atlanta teens at the heart of his story, you almost feel like you're being introduced to a new world. When characters are introduced, he throws their names up on the screen in freeze-frame, all Reservoir Dogs-style. When they go to school, he shoots them in slo-mo, cutting in quick shots of their sagging jeans, gold teeth and bling. And when they go to the roller rink on the weekends to blow off steam, Robinson pulls out all the stops, making a slip-and-fall pileup look as brutal as the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan.
He works so hard to give the movie the right vibe, it's all the more disappointing when the ultraconventional script kicks into gear. As vibrant as it is, ATL is very much the same teen flick Hollywood has been making since the '50s: A wounded, wrong-side-of-the-tracks boy meets a spoiled rich girl as he desperately tries to keep his friends and family from falling into a life of crime. For as long as Robinson and his intermittently talented cast can distract you from that formula about 45 minutes, to be exact it's a lot of fun. After that, it's a lot of eye-rolling melodrama.
It's essentially a vehicle for Dirty South rapper T.I., cast against type as Rashad, a sensitive, orphaned teen living with his slob of an uncle (Mykelti Williamson) and his impressionable little brother Ant (Evan Ross Naess). In Rashad's orbit are three friends of varying degrees of ambition, and a new girlfriend, the squeaky voiced, ghetto-fabulous New-New (Lauren London). Their social lives are almost entirely defined at the roller rink, presented here with all the excitement and flash of the disco clubs of Saturday Night Fever. But during the weekdays, while Rashad socks away cash in the hopes of becoming a cartoonist, Ant is lured in by neighborhood drug dealer Marcus (Outkast's Big Boi, in his feature debut).
It's clear that ATL is trying to do for the Dirty South what 8 Mile did for Eminem and Detroit; even though it's not expressly about music, it tries to put a gritty, realistic spin on a scene that's currently being mythologized in rap and R&B. The press notes claim the film was inspired by the real lives of TLC's T-Boz and soul producer Dallas Austin. Robinson has a real feel for the way kids talk and act, and T.I. has a believable camaraderie with his fellow actors, particularly Long. But for all his cool posturing and arrogant attitude, he can't muster up the vulnerability it takes to be a compelling actor.
After a breathless, sometimes exhilarating first half, the film simply doesn't know what to do with itself. It delves into the class differences among blacks in Atlanta, and ghetto poseurs who try to infiltrate Rashad's south side hood, but winds up with an after-school-special moral about the evils of small-time drug dealing. All of the story's conflicts are wrapped up within the last five minutes of screen time. 8 Mile proved that character, atmosphere and location are essential to making a good hip-hop movie, and it's a lesson that Robinson has clearly learned. But the director has forgotten the other half of the equation: a simple, well-told story that follows through on what it sets up.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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