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Thursday, March 30, 2006 07:21 am

More growing pains

ATL’s predictable coming-of-age story succeeds with exceptional cast

Coming-of-age movies rarely deviate from a basic blueprint: Teens are forced to deal with a life of adult troubles for which they are unprepared. Chris Robinson’s ATL follows the formula to the letter, but even it ends up being better than most entries in this genre, it’s unable to put a distinctive stamp on the form and is hindered by an ending that’s too neat to be believed. Still, the young actors whom Robinson has assembled are so talented and the characters they play so likable that we’re willing to invest ourselves in their plights even if the end is predictable. Based on a story by Antwone Fisher, whose self-titled biographical film is one of the most heartfelt and inspirational of recent years, ATL assembles the usual teen suspects, each on the brink of success or ruin. Rashad (rapper T.I., making his screen debut) is doing his best to keep his life on track which is more difficult for him than for most 18-year-olds. Living with his lazy Uncle George (Mykelti Williamson), he does his best to look out for his impressionable little brother, Ant (Evan Ross Naess, the youngest of Diana Ross’ children), who’s falling under the sway of a local drug pusher. Most of Rashad’s friends are better off. Esquire (Jackie Long) has his eyes set on attending an Ivy League university, Brooklyn (Albert Daniels) is happy with a career in fast food, and Teddy (Jason Weaver) just wants to get out of high school. Sudden love affairs, parties at Big Booty Judy’s, and Sunday-night skate sessions at the Cascade roller rink all figure into the five weeks the film covers before these young men graduate from high school. It should come as no surprise that it’s an eventful month, with Rashad taking a chance by falling for New-New (Lauren London), who has a secret that will set him back, and Ant’s desire to earn quick money on the street becomes more and more dangerous. The movie’s episodic nature eventually robs the story of some of its momentum, and Robinson’s reliance on scenes that take place at the Cascade to jumpstart the story becomes predictable and tedious. However, ATL’s most serious flaw is its ending, which provides each of its storylines with a happy ending after taking us to the brink of tragedy on more than one occasion. That said, the film achieves, for the most part, a sense of honesty thanks to a group of actors who deliver unaffected performances.
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