At the center of it all is Rashad, played with a slow-burning intensity by Tip Harris. He acts as master of ceremonies, guiding us through the shabby and sometimes dangerous quarters that seem light-years away from the booming, sprawling city featured in the Sunday real estate section. We follow him and his friends on their rounds, which take them from the grim pointlessness of school to the diner, the public pool and, most important, a roller-skating rink, where once a week they strut their stuff in elaborately choreographed group routines, vying for glory and the attention of girls.
These kids are tough, given to foul language and lots of ogling, but in a way they're pure of heart too. They've steered clear of drugs. Their sexual exploits are mostly confined to their imaginations. Parents, when they show up on screen, tend to treat their children as servants, but when the mother of a pair of twin teenage girls discovers they've been shoplifting, she barrels into a party to drag them home and read them the riot act. There's a sad aimlessness born of stunted hopes on display here, but a basic decency endures.
"ATL" has an air of authenticity when it comes to laying out the glum territory in which these teens steel themselves for the deprivations of adulthood that seem to await them, but it gets into trouble when it starts to tackle "issues," like whether an African-American can be successful without becoming "a sellout," as the daughter of a wealthy black entrepreneur at one point wails.
That's a painful and complex topic, but it's treated here with a hand as heavy as lead. We're introduced to this millionaire "sellout" (Keith David) as he sips brandy and smokes a cigar in an apparently otherwise all-white country club, where paintings of Confederate generals and the Stars and Bars adorn the walls. The more "ATL" tries to stake out something like a thesis, the more its characters and plot shed their plausibility and become symbols of what, precisely, it isn't quite clear.
What's most distressing about this shortcoming is that it may unintentionally discourage the disadvantaged kids who certainly are (or at least should be) part of the movie's target audience. For example, Rashad's best friend (an engaging Jackie Long) is the only good student in the group, but he's told by his guidance counselor, one Mr. Sapp (get it?), that even though he has great grades and strong SAT scores, he doesn't stand a chance of getting into a good college unless he can get a judge, a prominent banker or some such worthy, to write him a letter of recommendation. With all the very real obstacles facing inner-city blacks, why did screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism ("Drumline," 2002) feel the need to indulge in this paranoid fantasy and make it a central plot point, no less? One can only hope no aspiring scholars are taken in by it.
As clichés mount, realism and make-believe jostle against one another more discordantly. The siren song of drug trafficking finally takes its toll. Friendships and burgeoning romances are imperiled. Six minutes before the credits roll, a gun is drawn and fired. Fast-forward three months, and Rashad glibly informs us that everything worked out in the end. It's a disappointing and unpersuasive conclusion to a movie whose premise and performances promised better things. (PG-13) 103 min. ** S