2½ stars (out of four)
If "Roll Bounce" and "Boyz n the Hood" fell in love and had a PG-13 baby, it would be "ATL."
Directed by music video veteran Chris Robinson and set in modern-day South Atlanta, "ATL" covers all its bases: For nostalgia, there's Sunday night skate at the ghetto rink. For class-consciousness, there's Esquire, an ambitious high school kid who hides his background and cozies up to Atlanta's privileged set to escape the 'hood. And for drama, there's Rashad (Tip Harris, otherwise known as Southern rapper T.I.) and his younger brother Ant (Evan Ross, otherwise known as Diana Ross' son), whose parents are dead and who each have very different ideas of what it means to get by. Rashad wants to stay clean and provide for Ant; Ant wants flashy rims and diamond studs, which in this version of South Atlanta means dealing drugs.
There are also the teen movie staples, including that previously mentioned MPAA rating, a romance-lite between Rashad and the ghetto-fabulous New-New (Lauren London) and much trash-talking/bonding among four best friends, who, five weeks from graduation, are "all at the same place in our lives, but trying to figure out what's next."
Like most media these days, "ATL" feels like the product of video-on-demand-era focus groups, which means that it's entertaining, but not smart. The film doesn't succeed in its quest to be all things to all consumers--the audience I watched it with wasn't buying much--but there's about half here to love. If I had to quantify. Which I do. (See stars, 2.5.)
Fans of former street hustler Harris might be surprised to see him playing straight arrow Rashad. (Harris told MTV news that he once couldn't make a Hollywood meeting because of a date with his probation officer. ) But he's awfully effective as a kid whose life circumstances have forced him to play the part of a man, protecting and providing for his family, even at the cost of his own ambitions. It's only on Sunday nights at Cascades that Rashad can be a boy, a king really, reigning supreme at the rink with his three best friends, Brooklyn, Teddy and Esquire.
Here's the thing: I love synchronized choreography on skates as much as the next synchronized-choreography-on-skates fan, but the rink scenes here don't live up to potential.
Sunday night at Cascades is loosely based on Sunday night at Jellybeans, the Atlanta rink where producers Dallas Austin and Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins (yes, T-Boz from '90s supergroup TLC) spent their formative years, along with Atlanta natives Jermaine Dupri and Little Jon. Robinson knows how to shoot the skating for maximum thrill (see, MTV training isn't all bad), but the vibe is intentionally retro and the movie misses its opportunity to explore modern skate culture, which is alive and booming in cities such as Atlanta, Detroit and Chicago. (Alternatively, 2002's "Drumline," penned by "ATL" screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism and produced by Austin, brought much more life to another vibrant black cultural tradition.)
What "ATL" does understand is the relationship between Rashad and his friends, all scraping by in their own way and holding on to this last summer before, you know, everything changes. And, like "Hustle & Flow," the film brings welcome light on a geographic culture often overshadowed by the coasts.
But Ant's entanglement with drug money and the ultimate drawing of a gun? I may live in Wicker Park, but I'm fairly certain that dope dealing and gang banging in South Atlanta is rated R.
Directed by Chris Robinson; screenplay by Tina Gordon Chism; story by Antwone Fisher; photographed by Crash; edited by David Blackburn; production designed by Robb Buono; music by Aaron Zigman; produced by James Lassiter, Will Smith, Jody Gerson and Dallas Austin. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: PG-13 (drug content, language, sexual material and some violence).
Rashad - Tip Harris
Ant - Evan Ross
Esquire - Jackie Long
Brooklyn - Albert "Al Be" Daniels
Teddy - Jason Weaver
John Garnett - Keith David
New-New - Lauren London
Uncle George - Mykelti WilliamsonCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun