A group of misfit Atlanta teenagers must compete with a luscious soundtrack and some impressively trippy camerawork in “ATL,” the wildly undisciplined directorial debut of musicvideo maven Chris Robinson. Hitching a poor-boy-rich-girl romance to some conventional drug-dealing shenanigans, with a dash of last year’s “Roll Bounce” thrown in for good measure, Warner Bros.’ low-budget stab at capturing an urban niche audience is higher on stylistic dazzle than originality or coherence, making it an unlikely candidate to bust out of the box office ghetto.
As scripted by Tina Gordon Chism from a story by Antwone Fisher (who wrote and was the subject of “Antwone Fisher,” 2002), this is the sort of movie where everyone is identified by a catchy nickname, a brief freeze-frame and a mouthful of introductory voiceover.
First up is Rashad (Tip Harris, better known as rapper T.I.), a reasonably well-adjusted black teen from Atlanta’s south side who has been the self-proclaimed “man of the house” — a home he shares with younger brother Ant (Evan Ross) and prickly uncle George (Mykelti Williamson) — since the untimely deaths of his parents a few years ago.
Rashad’s buddies are a familiar but likeable bunch that includes preppy Esquire (Jackie Long), tubby Brooklyn (an immensely likeable Albert Daniels) and perpetual high school flunkee Teddy (Jason Weaver). Amusingly mismatched group spends every Sunday night jamming at the Cascade roller-skating rink, where Rashad first meets a sharp-tongued beauty (assured newcomer Lauren London) whose name, New New, is almost as improbable as her hoop earrings.
Radiating ghetto-fabulous flair on the surface, New New guards a not-so-unpredictable secret. Script dovetails her dilemma cleverly with that of Esquire, whose relentless social-climbing leads him to ingratiate himself with successful businessman John Garnett (Keith David). Resulting conflict, if a tad schematic, says some interesting things about black social mobility, cultural legitimacy and the sense of pride that can readily attach itself to both the ghetto and the country club.
The sweet and entirely believable romance between Rashad and New New unfortunately has to share roughly equal screen time with some flat-footed comic bits (signaled by Aaron Zigman’s score, which turns conspicuously wry at odd moments) and a stale subplot that sees Ant falling in with a group of drug dealers. Tonally, pic never gets a firm grip, wobbling between earnest sincerity and the lowbrow mockery of a blaxploitation picture, even introducing peripheral characters with names like Big Booty Judy for no real reason.
Robinson’s direction is similarly all over the rink, achieving a near-contact high in the skating scenes that is aided in no small part by Devyne Stephens’ choreography and Robb Buono’s fabulous candy-colored production design. But for the most part, helmer is content to go flashily over-the-top, experimenting with varying lenses and bizarre angles rather than figuring out the ideal camera placement for a given scene.
In his bigscreen debut, Harris reveals himself to be an actor of charismatic reserve, while Williamson also registers strongly as the oafish but sympathetic George. London is almost too feisty in her early scenes — a choice that makes sense, given her character’s wavering sense of identity — and heartbreaking in her later ones.
The supremely tasty soundtrack, with music supervision by Julia Michels, features nuggets like Ludacris’ “Georgia” cover as well as a few tracks performed by Harris himself. Also figuring into the mix is hip-hop duo OutKast, whose Antwan Patton appears in a small role.