Review: ATL (2006)

Note: This article was originally published in Technician on March 30, 2006.


'ATL' intriguing yet vacant

Just when you thought the world had run out of rap stars to put in movies, here comes ATL, starring Southern black rapper T.I. Yet unlike recent films starring musicians, which have only really served as propaganda for their stars' music, ATL takes a more profound look at the issues affecting black urban teens.

Set in South Atlanta, the film follows Rashad (T.I.), an African-American teen struggling to keep up with his responsibilities. He looks after his brother, Ant (Evan Ross), has a job as a janitor and spends most of his free time hanging out with friends at the local roller skating rink. But when love enters his life in the form of New-New (Lauren London), he falls into a web of lies and distrust in which everyone around him has something to hide.

T.I. delivers a surprisingly strong performance in the leading role, proving he may be one of the few rappers with actual acting talent. The other actors hold their own, particularly Mykelti Williamson as Rashad's comical yet complex uncle.

What makes this film intriguing is its avoidance of the typical themes of movies targeted at African-American audiences: racism and crime. Written by Antwone Fisher, the story focuses instead on the conflict between Rashad's responsibilities and his dreams. To what extent should he focus on the people around him at the expense of his own personal growth and happiness? It also deals heavily with the issue of class, and the troubling fact that simply being a member of the same race does not protect one from discrimination.

Unfortunately, though it is somewhat unique in its complex and unique themes, it fails to take its plot and character development beyond the norm. It isn't long before elements of the cliche urban street drama creep in, like drugs and crime. This film simply tries to do too much. It wants to be a coming-of-age tale, a romance, a social commentary and a gangster film all at once. The result is that while some plotlines are developed beautifully, others are weak or even disappear, only to turn up later without allowing the audience to obtain any emotional involvement whatsoever.

Overall, ATL is far better than most urban dramas. Unfortunately, sloppy directing keeps this film from taking off and being great. Though it shines when tackling complex social issues, it unfortunately doesn't stay original all the way through, leaving us with an engaging yet ultimately unsatisfying portrayal of life in Atlanta.