Even when the rink was crunk on Sunday night, sometimes I felt like I was out there all by myself, floating about it all. No lies, no pain and no worries about what tomorrow might bring.
—Rashad (T.I.), ATL
Logistically, it’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle that’s as big as a football field. Every little piece, every little nuance connects to something that you shot a month ago. Your brain’s always working. It’s all about details.
—Chris Robinson, “In the Rink: A Director’s Journey”
“We didn’t want any huge stars in the film,” says first time feature director Chris Robinson. “We’re gonna make stars.” He’s talking about the young leads in ATL, and as the DVD’s making-of documentary, “In the Rink: A Director’s Journey,” makes clear, the kids came together as an enthusiastic “little tribe,” working out their choreographies and characterizations with the sort of energy associated with newbies behind and before the camera.
As one the film’s many co-producers, James Lassiter, puts it, ATL “examines going from being a child to being a man and a woman,” a regular enough story here set in and around a skating rink, where other co-producers like Dallas Austin and T-Boz came up. Riffing on their experiences, the movie moseys more than speeds along, attending to details, appreciating nuances, observing the ways that kids interact. “Forty years ago,” says Robinson while he rides in a car through downtown Atlanta,
They were hanging people down here. Forty years later, there’s a new South, a city where African American people are involved in the financial structure of a city. It’s got a very negative history that it’s trying to rewrite. It’s a city in transition. I wanted Atlanta to definitely be a character that you can feel.
In ATL, the city is like that. Most scenes feature recognizable landmarks, with camerawork (by Robinson’s longtime music video collaborator, Crash) that’s deft rather than showy. These smart visuals go to a good cause, a story that’s intelligent and respectful, making use of music video stylings to convey complex narrative. As Robinson notes in “In the Rink,” his own journey is an example of growth: “Going music videos to a feature film is sort of like going from a sprint to a marathon.”
While the script follows a usual line—young people coming of age—ATL is engaging and expansive in representing “life in the hood.” The primary plot concerns 17-year-old Rashad (T.I./Tip Harris, of whom Robinson says, “I always knew this guy had crazy charisma”) and his 14-year-old brother Antwan (Evan Ross Naess), orphaned and living with their Uncle George (Mykelti Williamson). Rashad’s voiceover anchors a central-ish point of view, though ATL cuts all over the place, including life lessons for his friends and family as well. A high school senior, Rashad works with George cleaning office buildings at night, trying to put away money for Ant’s education. But Ant’s got his own ideas, resenting his brother’s directives, admiring the conspicuous consumption he sees in the local drug dealer, Marcus (Big Boi), who rolls up as if on cue, equipped with fine rims and pitbulls.
While Ant and Rashad cultivate but don’t quite discuss the growing tensions between them, the film provides any number of alternative and simultaneous plots. This rush of plots and ideas is tempered by striking compositions: the camera close on Ant’s profile as he rides in Marcus’ car, fresh out of his first, mildly disturbing stint in jail; the camera looking up from under Rashad as he watches his girlfriend, New-New (Lauren London), leave the rink, revealing his shock at feeling betrayed by her; and a perfect shot through a screen door, as Rashad leaves that girlfriend on his porch, whimpering her regret even as he can’t stand to hear it.
The story concerns Rashad’s rituals of getting by: he draws comics (aspiring to become a professional) and hangs with his friends at the skating rink and Waffle House (where Monica is a waitress, on screen for about 30 seconds, but good to see). The skating is part nostalgic and part athletic, another context for the development of relationships. Rashad’s team includes some familiar types, slightly altered, each embodying a little bit of commentary on the ways class and race create communities and determine possibilities.
Preppy-looking Esquire (Jackie Long) attends private school on a scholarship, works at the golf course (where he hustles white boys who presume the caddy can’t play), and pursues a college recommendation letter from a local CEO, John Garnett (Keith David). Their first meeting at the club has Esquire in waiter mode serving drinks and doling out compliments: surrounded by white guys smoking cigars and playing pool, they size each other up. Lurking behind them is a painting of a Confederate officer and flag; Esquire’s efforts to get ahead and Garnett’s own backstory (he came up from the hood and refuses to look or even give back, as this might mean acknowledging his underclass roots). Despite his money and status, Garnett remains righteously uncomfortable in this white world, and yes, he’ll learn to deal with that by the time ATL is over.
The fact that Garnett has a huge house and a dynamic wife (Lonette McKee, who sadly only shows up for one scene), he’s not quite figured out how to be a progressive father figure, mentoring Esquire or his own child. And in this, he’s connected thematically to George, whose efforts to maintain his own sense of identity and place leads to behaviors both comic and poignant (he labels his cereal boxes, keeps count of how many bowls’ worth the boys eat). While Rashad sees George as missing the point of parenting, both of them miss Ant’s slide into Marcus’ sphere (marked by a visit to Marcus’ home, where he makes Ant feed his dogs, plainly enjoying the boy’s nervousness).
Once Ant is busted for selling marijuana, however, Rashad erupts. George takes a more pragmatic stance, even suggesting that the extra money will help out the household. Rashad, idealistic despite his tough front, can’t believe what he’s hearing, but the broader point is important, that limited options are cyclical, feeding expectations and disappointments into the same grinder.
ATL offers a range of male models, with George’s hording a function of his lack of material, while Marcus’ flash is only a flipside of Garnett’s (secured on his gated estate). The first step toward that sort of self-declaring consumption is visible in some of the kids’ self-performances, namely, New-New and her girlfriends’ ghetto-fabulous outfits and the most admired skating team uniforms.
While the movie shows a range of ambitions, by kids and adults, it doesn’t judge them, but considerers how they come to see options. Rashad’s art is most visible (his sketches show his emotional trajectory, helpful, since he’s a regular boy who doesn’t tend to explain himself), but all the kids forge their identities through the means they see in front of them. Sometimes too earnest and always generous, ATL never loses sight of this truth, that the kids’ experiences and decisions have contexts.
ATL - Theatrical Trailer
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