In my review of Roll Bounce last year, I chided Malcolm Lee for (in my mind) using the kitsch culture of the ’70s and roller skating as a pointless facilitator for exploring African-American culture, completely unaware of the real connections between the two from the 1970’s to the present. Impugn me if you will; I can only claim ignorance, a WASP upbringing and lack of familiarity with that “The Facts of Life” show.
Well, ignorance aside, I stand by my censure of Roll Bounce — a film that no more evokes a cultural plight through roller skating than Bring It On evokes … anything. With ATL, however, the connections between working-class black youth and the roller disco are impossible to ignore and, though the film doesn’t succeed because of a myriad of narrative and aesthetic confusions, it at least induces the desired pathos.
Set in present-day Atlanta, four friends are fast approaching their high school graduation, and all but one are at a loss with what to do next. The main character and de facto leader of the group, Rashad (Tip Harris, who I’m told is also a rapper named T.I.), seems to be on a straight, if aimless, path. Orphaned three years prior, Rashad and his younger brother Anton (Evan Naess) now live with their deadbeat uncle, and the three run the family’s custodial service, a career course that Rashad seems resigned to. Two of the “crew,” Brooklyn (Albert Daniels) and Teddy (Jason Weaver), don’t seem to have any goals beyond simply graduating and then making do with dead-end jobs. But the fourth, Esquire (Jackie Long), has ambitions to “get out.” Esquire gained admittance to a private school by using a forged address, and he seems destined for college and beyond. In the meantime, however, all four friends remain close-knit and frequent the community skating rink — the one place they can escape their humdrum lives and feel validated.
In spite of the plethora of imagery in the movie, ATL’s roller-skating largely takes a back seat in the plot, appearing only three or four times in extended sequences. The story maintains that the central characters are all skating fanatics, but sparse attention is given to showing it. There’s even a purported competition (which never takes place) that should give them the impetus to practice. What really take center stage here, if anything, are the vague polarities of Rashad’s life: He isn’t sure where to go from here; he starts dating a girl named New-New (?!) who has a sketchy past; he’s trying to keep Anton from being lured into drug dealing. While all of these forces form a dramatic axis for Rashad and many of the other characters to revolve around, none come together to achieve any understanding of those characters beyond. The pins are set up; they fall down.
Most of the problem is Chris Robinson’s direction. This is Robinson’s first feature-length after a slew of music videos, and he just doesn’t know how to pace his scenes. The camera will linger too long on one locus, then clip out on two characters mid-conversation. In more lively scenarios, like those in the skating rink, Robinson is more in his element: Slow-motion scenes ebb to throbbing hip-hop and actually feel atmospheric. Everything else looks like some half-assed kind of cinema verite with barely audible dialogue and no camera shifts.
Likewise, most of the characters in ATL come across as some kind of weird amalgamation of docudrama and pat afterschool special. Tip Harris falls into the same trap as 50 Cent in Get Rich or Die Tryin’ — he’s convincing as a real ghetto denizen but not particularly as a real human being. Harris has a hard façade and speaks in a drawling, slurred dialect that’s often difficult to understand. He certainly looks the part, but beyond a couple of angry outbursts, it doesn’t look like much is going on behind his squinted stare, and it’s easy to believe it could be nothing at all. Many of the other characters are similarly bland, lacking energy and purpose and not finding it in the plot.
ATL is a movie that just can’t figure out what purpose to serve. The screenplay by Tina Chism (she of Drumline infamy), based on an Antwone Fisher story, gets lost on its way to a coming-of-age melodrama and ends up a dreary comedy and love story, among other things. In the end, no one is going to empathize with much of what’s going on, only left with an indistinct portrait of the “Dirty South,” but nothing close to an understanding of the actual people who live there.
Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.
ATL / Phillip Stephens
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()