Based upon a story by Antwone Fisher (Yes, silly. THAT Antwone Fisher!), "ATL" is a film that feels a bit like "Roll Bounce", but throws in a smidgen more urban reality with its genuinely appealing, sympathetic characters.
The film centers the lives of Rashad (Tip Harris, known as "T.I" to current rap/hip-hop fans)and Anton (Evan Ross), two high school-age kids essentially raising themselves following the death of their parents in an auto crash. Sure, their uncle (Mykelti Williamson) is living with them...but, essentially, the boys are on their own to survive.
Rashad is a 17-year-old senior working to get his brother out of their rough Atlanta neighborhood, while younger Anton, at 14, is already dealing drugs in the neighborhood.
The boys have friends...not the kinds of friends that we often see in these urban, "life is rough" dramas, but real friends. They include Teddy (Jason Weaver), Esquire (Jackie Long) and Brooklyn (Albert Daniels). Esquire, too, is looking for his way out and has probably found it...he's a smart kid with an Ivy League scholarship and the support of a local millionaire (Keith David).
The simple reality is "ATL" doesn't so much work because of the plot, but because of the characters and the way the actors bring these characters to life.
You've seen this story before. Heck, you saw a similar storyline in last year's "Roll Bounce," and the fact that the highlight of these boy's lives is on Sundays when they hit the local roller rink to show off their moves only magnifies the similarities between the films.
Yet, "ATL" is a pleasant view because where Fisher's possibly autobiographical story often plays predictable, the young men whose lives we are witnessing remind us of young men we've known and cared about and hoped and prayed would somehow find the right path despite tremendous odds against it.
So often in films, especially African-American films, we see the macho bravado that often goes with the life of a drug dealer...in "ATL," we see the vulnerability, the weakness, the failures and the way our lives can lead us to making such challenging and seemingly poor choices.
Director Chris Robinson directs the film with an easygoing, well-paced and authentic feeling that avoids drama and histrionics. Clearly, he has pulled out of all these young actors relaxed, natural performances. In his feature film debut, this largely MTV based director clearly has his finger on the pulse of the urban community. He clearly loves, embraces and accepts the hopes, dreams and the often harsh realities for these characters and their stories.
While the film occasionally dips into "Afterschool Special" territory, it's easy to forgive it for its occasional trespasses into these areas. The film features a stellar soundtrack (much of it from "T.I.") and an appropriate production design that helps set the film's tone effectively.
So often video directors trying to make the leap from video to film choose style over substance...not Robinson. "ATL" is a well-acted, intelligent and authentic look at the lives of young men that you and I know in our daily lives.
Apparently, Robinson cares about them as much as we do.