Judging from its ad campaign, ATL looks like another hard-headed urban drugs-and-violence melodrama showcasing hip-hop musicians who want to be movie stars. That it turns out to be a smart, realistic and cautiously optimistic coming-of-age story is as big a surprise as its quietly affecting cast. Modest in scope but effective nonetheless, it should be seen by more than just its target audience.
Set in the Mechanicville section of Atlanta, the story follows four friends who are about to leave their childhoods behind. High-school senior "Esquire" (Jackie Long) is applying to college, but his friends' plans are up in the air. Brooklyn (Albert Daniels) keeps getting fired from fast-food jobs, while Teddy (Jason Weaver) is content installing custom gold teeth in a storefront shop.
Rashad Swan (Tip Harris), an orphan, dreams of becoming a cartoonist. Although nominally under the care of his uncle George (Mykelti Williamson), Rashad is the one who has been looking after his younger brother Ant (Evan Ross). But for the summer, Rashad's biggest goal is winning a roller-skate competition at Cascade, the local rink. That's where he meets New-New (Lauren London), a sassy girl whose background remains a mystery.
As the summer progresses, the friends skate, bicker, go to the municipal swimming pool, work at demeaning jobs, and try to figure out what to do with their lives. Esquire uses an encounter with black entrepreneur John Garnett (Keith David) to better his chances of getting accepted into an Ivy League school. Rashad and Ant clean offices for their uncle's janitorial service.
And Ant starts working for Marcus (Antwan Andre Patton, better known as Big Boi of OutKast), a drug dealer whose smiling, friendly charm masks a lethal drive. Rashad is furious when he finds out, but the practical George points out that they could use the extra money.
Debut director Chris Robinson uses a straightforward style to sketch in ATL's characters, giving them dignity but having fun with their faults as well. Much of the film plays out along predictable lines, but the cast seems determined to treat the plot honestly. Williamson's understated authority and David's skepticism and anger contrast extremely well with the younger actors. Among them, Long and Daniels make strong impressions, as do Khadijah and Malika as airhead twins who keep getting into trouble.
Most surprising is Tip Harris, better known as rap star T.I. It's easy to get noticed as a thug, but harder to make a mark by playing someone decent. Harris doesn't push, but he gets his character's intensity and will across just the same. He gives ATL a moral authority that lifts the film over the script's weak points.
ATL can't be described as groundbreaking, but it is a relief from the cynical, slickly packaged teen movies that have been flooding the market. Yes, the skating competition, with its echoes of Drumline, leads nowhere. And Rashad's biggest problem turns out to be that his girlfriend is rich. But at its core, ATL shows its viewers an honest way of dealing with a difficult world.