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ATL (Warner Bros., PG-13)

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The soundtrack is packed with the best offerings from the Dirty South sound and, just like a ’70s Travolta pic, fashion and mood are everything.

 

Capitalizing on the success of Hustle and Flow and the popularity of the Dirty South movement in hip-hop, ATL travels extremely familiar cinematic ground. A combination of Saturday Night Fever and Boyz in the Hood, this coming-of-age piece tells the tale of four friends in Atlanta as they get ready for graduation and face the responsibilities, challenges, and pitfalls of their divergent lives. Since everyone in the theater knows where the film is headed from the opening credits, it all comes down to the telling.

First-time director Chris Robinson spends quite a bit of time setting the scene. The soundtrack is packed with the best offerings from the Dirty South sound and, just like a ’70s Travolta pic, fashion and mood are everything. Here, the discos and honkytonks are replaced by the Cascade, the local skating rink where everyone gathers and practices their routines for the big showdown. A plethora of scenes showcasing skating skills to layers of pumping hip-hop slowly set the tone.

Unfortunately, Robinson spends way too much time expounding as protagonist Rashad (Tip “T.I.” Harris) waxes on through a clunky voiceover narration that steals any subtlety, wit, or charm from the first half of the movie. Additionally, Rashad’s voiceover has the feel of the reminiscence of an old man, but the story is set in the present. Fads, technology, and lingo date the film. So, instead of the fond memories of a mature man looking back on the salad days his youth with greater wisdom and understanding, the film becomes the redundant stories of the twentysomething whose life peaked roller skating in high school and who now tortures patrons at the local bar, endlessly recounting tales of his heroics to anyone pretending to listen.

But once Robinson quits languishing over the exposition and things start to happen, the film picks up and actually becomes interesting. Two events—one obvious, the other more clever—ratchet up the action and the emotional content for the characters. Of course, everything comes to a head for Rashad as the competition and graduation approach. The story shifts to walk in the steps of Boyz in the Hood and its many imitators, but here the style of the film is set aside and the actors are allowed to play out fairly well-drawn characters. Robinson trips by ending with the bad narration and an everyone-lives-happily-ever-after ending Walt Disney would have found trite, but along the way, the film does have a handful of moments.

What Robinson has working for him is a talented cast; Harris, an accomplished rapper, carries quite a load in his first feature. He finds a natural tone as a regular guy trying to make it in a thug world. Lauren London, as New-New (also in her first feature), seems cloying, grating, and an embarrassing stereotype until the plot reveals her depths. Quality support comes from Jason Weaver, Albert Daniels, and Jackie Long as Rashad’s friends; veterans Keith David and Mykelti Williamson provide steady guidance. Other strong showings include Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and Evan Ross Naess.

Listed at 105 minutes, the running time feels much longer, and some judicious editing—almost everything involving the twins could be cut—would make the picture infinitely more watchable. Still, Robinson does provide nice Cliff Notes to the Dirty South lifestyle, and the film does have a few quality moment, all in the second half…but there is a great deal of morass to wade through to find them.

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