There is a wonderful, unexpected charm to ATL, a charm that belies its unoriginal story and cliched characters. In the hands of video director Chris Robinson, the film’s well-worn tale of growing up poor and black is given new life through a refreshing youth and an almost irrepressible joy that make the film a pleasure to watch.
ATL is primarily the story of Rashad (played with effortless charisma by Atlanta rapper Tip “T.I.” Harris), a high school senior whose parents were killed in a car accident three years before. Since then, along with his little brother Ant (the impressive Evan Ross), Rashad has lived with his janitor uncle (Mykelti Williamson) and quietly saved money in the hope that, though he expects to work alongside his uncle for the rest of his life, he’ll be able to help Ant get out of Atlanta, and live a better life. Despite his fierce exterior, there’s something fanciful to Rashad, from his meticulous cartoons to his reoccurring fantasies about being alone and free, with no problems and no responsibilities.
In addition to the ever-present Ant - a tough, determined kid whose ambition is a red flag from the film’s first frame - most of Rashad’s time is spent in the company of Esquire (Jackie Long), Brooklyn (Albert “Al Be” Daniels), and Teddy (Jason Weaver), all of whom have conveniently diverse goals. Esquire, though he lives near Rashad, goes to school in a rich district across town, and has been admitted to a fictional Ivy League university for the fall, if he can find the money to attend. Brooklyn is a New York native who seems as if he’ll be more than content to just graduate from high school, while Teddy is a joker of indeterminate age who works fitting others with gold teeth.
What sets these friends apart from every other core of a coming-of-age story is the cheerful immaturity of their relationships. Though at first their exchanges feel forced, the movie quickly hits its stride (or, possibly, the audience does), and the conversations among the four take on an wonderfully easy affection. Unlike the unnatural mature or clever lines often written for teen characters, the things that Rashad, Brooklyn, Teddy, and Esquire say to one another sound for all the world like four kids shooting the breeze. They talk about graduation, jobs, and girls, and actually get embarrassed when the latter comes up. Kids, acting like kids on screen: it’s a breath of fresh air we didn’t even know we needed.
Every Sunday night, the quartet (with Ant in tow) head to Cascade, the local roller rink, where they’re the reigning champs of an annual team skating contest. In a scene that looks like something out of the early 80s, the candy-colored rink is packed with jubilant people - most of the high school-aged - in perpetual motion. As Rashad says in his voiceover, when they’re at the rink, everything disappears - the pressures, the fears, and the worries of life are all suspended, if only for a few hours. Here again, in a movie about tough urban kids, we have scenes of true innocence, where the kids are allowed to grin, and clown, and flirt like grade-school kids, running from the girls they like.
It’s at Cascade that Rashad finally connects with New New (Lauren London), the mysterious girl who seems to appear wherever he and his friends are away from school. Their relationship is so gentle and innocent - they engage in cocky flirting, and then spend most of their time in his car leaning against opposite doors, and they talk about one another with a sort of dreamy optimism - that the eventual sex scene feels incredibly inappropriate, tacked on for no other reason than because Harris’ fans want to see him shirtless. The scene is forgiven, however, by what follows the next morning: Rashad and Ant, who awkwardly lost his virginity the night before, sit at the breakfast table, giggling and grinning while their uncle glares from one to the other and tries incredulously to bring them down to earth. The childishness of the moment disarms the inappropriateness of the previous scene, and easily returns the film to its previous gentle rhythm.
Though Ant’s storyline eventually becomes quite serious, the majority of ATL is gloriously joyful, shot through with brilliant colors, loud music, and the confidence of youth, and it is in creating this tone that Robinson’s music video background is both most in evidence and most effective. Without words, he conveys the freedom of roller skating with friends at midnight on a Sunday, and the potential of a pool full of scantily-clad teenagers; the eager tension at a forbidden party, and the simple pleasures of friendship. Robinson’s reliance on music (the theater regularly shakes from the bass, but it makes you smile rather than cringe) in the first half of the film is unusually heavy, but he can be forgiven because his use of it is so productive.
In addition to creating an unusually powerful atmosphere, Robinson coaxes strong performances from his young cast, several of whom are making their feature film debuts. Most notable among the debutants are Harris as Rashad and young Evan Ross as his brother. Harris, though not a great actor, is blindingly charismatic, and works hard at his role. With his striking, angular face, Harris always has an air of suspicion about him, and is able to completely close himself off with frightening ease. Because of this, when he really smiles, and turns on his charm, the entire film lights up, and it’s impossible to look away. Ross, meanwhile, is less charismatic but far more naturally talented than his older counterpart. The youngest son of the legendary Diana Ross, he changes moods effortlessly, switching from a brittle cockiness to abject terror in the blink of an eye. He holds his own with everyone in the film, including the older, far more accomplished actors who play ATL’s authority figures. Ross will next appear alongside Terrence Howard in P.D.R., and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him on screen with increasing frequency.
Wrapped in a proud innocence that is unheard of in today’s teen sagas, ATL is a refreshing pleasure to behold. Despite its serious touches, Robinson’s film, ultimately, offers an escape for viewers, both from the wryly knowing teens that dominate our movie screens and from the pressures of modern life. It’s one thing to watch characters escape on screen; it’s quite another when the director allows us to join them, if only for a few minutes at a time.