I went into ATL trying to figure out exactly what I was going to be seeing. The ads started out advertising the film as a hip-hop roller-skating movie but rapidly pulled the skating out of the trailers, so what exactly was this film about? Well, the skating appears to have been pulled from the movie as well (if it was ever strongly there) leaving an urban tale about a group of teenagers getting ready to graduate from high school and trying to make the most out of their lives in the ATL (that’s Atlanta for the unhip).
The film centers around Rashad (Tip Harris) who listlessly narrates the film – think what an entire movie narrated by Snoop-Dogg and you have an idea of what Harris’s narration sounds like. It’s a cool sound but the problem is its too laid back for a drama, especially a drama about a character who has some real things to get emotional about like Rashad. Through Rashad’s narration we meet the other players of the movie including Esquire (Jackie Long) who attends private school, works at the country club, and is in the running for a scholarship to an Ivy League University. Esquire is the stand out character of the group and the movie probably would have been more interesting from his point of view than from Rashad’s or any of his other friends.
Rashad’s brother Ant (Evan Ross Naess) is part of a secondary storyline involving drug distribution in Rashad’s neighborhood. It adds a little bit of balance as we see one of Rashad’s former classmates who dropped out of school and is making a business off distribution. It doesn’t glorify the drug lifestyle, but it doesn’t truly negate it either. Ant is taken into custody at one point and runs into monetary problems, but Marcus (Antwan Andre Patton) has a decent lifestyle going from his business.
As part of the neighborhood gang’s weekly ritual, they hang out every Sunday night at the local skating rink where the skating “gangs” have a “war” once a year for bragging rights as the best skaters around. The war is drawing close but despite that the skating rink is not much more than one more setting for the movie. Sure, some excellent skating is shown, although most of it suffers the same problem combat sequences suffer – far too short clips of footage edited together rapidly, i.e. we never really see people skating. The closer the skate war gets, the less emphasis the skating element of the story gets which makes me think it probably was a larger part of the movie that was cut down for the real main storyline: the girl Rashad meets at the skating rink, New-New (Lauren London). In a world of people impressed with Rashad’s skating skills and school reputation, New-New cares for Rashad himself, although when she really gets to know him isn’t shown and is bypassed with a line about how she can tell everything she needs to know about a man from his skating. The result isn’t really interesting so the film gives her a bit of a secret and some parental disapproval to spice things up a bit.
ATL is a first film for the majority of the cast and director Chris Robinson, and it definitely shows. Robinson uses lots of irregular camera angles, particularly closer shots and quirky stylistic placement of the camera, but there’s no apparent reason for it since the style doesn’t blend together to form a particular style. It’s as if Robinson told his DP to place the camera somewhere that would look cool and what was cool changed randomly for any given shot. In front of the camera, the actors lines sound forced a lot of the time, part of which can be attributed to the rookie cast but part of which lies on the screenwriters, something surprising from Tina Gordon Chism who also wrote Drumline and based ATL on a story from Antwone Fisher. Very little of the dialogue or situations feel true, with only one or two honest moments carrying through the forced ethnicity and predictability of the storylines.
What ATL does have going for it is a killer soundtrack, a few visually interesting (if not rapid) skating sequences, and a lot of lost potential. Robinson and Chism should have filtered what wasn’t needed out of the script and then spent some time building the confidence of the newcomer director and actors to create some real emotion behind this so called “new American story.” The result is a bland, lackluster film that thanks to both bad marketing and poor filmmaking, never really gets the chance to endear itself to the audience.