T.I. Makes Impressive Screen Debut in Coming-of-Age Flick Set in His Hometown of Atlanta
Film Review by Kam Williams
Excellent (3.5 stars)
Rated PG-13 for sex, expletives, ethnic slurs, violence and drugs.
Running time: 105 minutes
Studio: Warner Brothers
Ever since his parents died in a car accident, Rashad (Tip ’T.I.’ Harris) has had to put his dream of becoming a cartoonist on hold in order to handle the responsibility of raising his younger brother, Ant (Evan Ross), practically singlehandedly. For although their Uncle George (Mykelti Williamson) did move in with his suddenly orphaned nephews, he's proven to be more of a hindrance than a help, since he won’t contribute to the upkeep of their row house on the south side of Atlanta.
Therefore, 17 year-old Rashad works two part-time jobs just to make ends meet, one as a janitor, the other, as a cashier at Cascade, the local roller skating rink where everybody in the hood hangs out. Rashad's personal posse includes trash-talking Brooklyn (Albert Daniels), a brother who always has to remind folks that he's from New York; Esquire (Jackie Long) an A-student who has his sights set on an Ivy League school; and Teddy (Jason Weaver), a high school dropout who fits customers for gold grills at a capped tooth emporium.
At the point of departure, Rashad, a senior, already has his hands full between paying the bills and trying to graduate on time. But the plot thickens by a trio of developments. First, his crew decides to enter the big skating competition which is coming up in five weeks. Then, Rashad has his head turned by New-New (Lauren London), a mysterious girl from the other side of the tracks who flirts with him when he's at work behind the counter. And finally, Ant drifts into drug-dealing, seduced by a slick operator's (Big Boi) promises of easy money.
So, these are the assorted themes explored by ATL, which was loosely based on the early lives of TLC's T-Boz and music mogul Dallas Austin. Hip-hop video director Chris Robinson (Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, Snoop Dogg, etcetera) makes a smooth transition to the big screen here, toning down some of the gangsta’ rap genre's seamier elements while serving up a very positive message.
Just as impressive is the cast assembled to execute this subplot laden script, starting with renowned rapper Tip ’T.I.’ Harris who makes his acting debut in the lead role of Rashad. Other equally-refreshing first-timers include Evan Ross (Diana's son) as his rebellious brother, Lauren London as his bourgie babe girlfriend who's secretly slumming, and Albert Daniels as the motor-mouth from The Big Apple. Veteran actors Keith David and Lonette McKee turn in fine performances as New-New's parents, and hip-hoppers Big Boi, Bone Crusher and Jazze Pha lend their street cred to help create an air of authenticity around Atlanta's version of the Ghetto Fabulous.
Be forewarned, despite this critic's stamp of approval, this film does trade in misogyny, profanity, the N-word, violence and drug use. So this is not exactly appropriate for impressionable young minds, despite the kid-friendly PG-13 rating. The dialogue is laced with which language reflects the region's inclination to turn a colorful phrase. For instance, one woman's rounded rump is referred to as being ’an ass better than a swamp possum with the mumps.’ Who knows what that means, but it sure is imaginative. Or how about, ’She opened up like a can of pig feet.’ The cinematography is distinctly Southern in nature, too, filling the screen with shots not only of Atlanta's slums, but of such iconic images as the Confederate Flag, cotton fields, and a slave plantation.
By the time the curtain comes down on ATL, all the loose ends have been addressed, even if we don't quite get to see how each of the principals managed to arrive at such ideal scenarios. A tip of the cap to Tip Harris and Lauren London for it is their chemistry and charm which allows one to believe in their tenderhearted romance in an atmosphere where women are regarded as objects and affectionately called ’bitches' and ’hos.’
TIp ’T.I.’ Harris - Interview