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Street smart Robinson's treatment lifts 'ATL' above usual teen dramas

It's so easy to make disastrously awful teenage coming-of-age dramas that the appearance of one that mostly works is pretty newsworthy.

That's why director Chris Robinson's debut feature film, "ATL," is so welcome, as it's a teen drama that occasionally dabbles in cliche, but doesn't get bogged down in it. "ATL" is smart enough to forsake the lazy formulas that have plagued other entries in this genre and tell a strong story, with humor and heart, and that's why it's solid.

Robinson (not the Black Crowes' vocalist, although wouldn't that be interesting?) honed his cinematic skills on MTV and it shows. But the often flashy editing style never overpowers the plot. Instead, he lets his actors create real characters and tells a tale that takes place in Atlanta, but could very well be happening in countless cities in 21st century America.

Two brothers, Rashad, played by Tip "T.I." Harris, and young Ant, played by Evan Ross, are the protagonists of "ATL." The two are struggling in different ways following the death of their parents and are forced to live with their irritating uncle (Mykelti Williamson, providing another of his strong supporting performances). In this troubled situation, the two have formed a close bond, which is quickly tested as they grow up.

The film cannot quite abandon the basic structure of other teen dramas, as Rashad works hard to save money and Ant looks instead to small-time drug dealing and the thug life. Familiar territory, for sure, but thanks to the performances of Harris and Ross, it doesn't seem stale.

Also interesting are the several side stories involving the brothers' friends, all of whom hang out at the local roller rink. There is Esquire, played by Jackie Long, who longs to attend an Ivy League school and hooks up with a powerful businessman (Keith David); Brooklyn (Albert Daniels); and Teddy, an aging high schooler, played by Jason Weaver.

The roller rink has made something of a comeback, on film at least, in last year's "Roll Bounce" and this film. While this might seem odd, the action works nicely on film and allows Robinson to employ some stellar camera work and thumping music. Are such skating heroics going on at roller rinks nationwide? Perhaps not, but they sure are onscreen.

"ATL" heads to a prototypically violent turning point, but in some sense, the film has earned the right to go to this oft-visited well. The ending, surprisingly, is pretty rosy (maybe a little too rosy), but it feels like the proper conclusion for these characters.

Robinson smartly assembled a cast of fresh, young faces, veteran character actors such as David and Williamson, and even familiar faces to music fans, such as Outkast's Big Boi, here playing a key role. The film also has an intriguing pedigree, being loosely based upon the experiences of two music powerhouses, producer Dallas Austin and TLC's Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins.

"ATL" won't be remembered as a classic in the urban youth genre, like John Singleton's "Boyz N the Hood" or the Hughes Brothers' "Menace II Society." But it is a compelling, colorful entry that showcases a bright young director and dares to ask what many intelligent teenage movie junkies have probably been thinking for the last several years: Can't a teen drama treat its audience like adults, instead of idiots?

For that reason and more, "ATL" should find its audience, and they're likely to come away impressed. And possibly inclined to go roller skating.


REVIEW: 3 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: Tip "T.I." Harris, Lauren London, Antwan "Big Boi" Patton, Mykelti Williamson, Keith David

DIRECTOR: Chris Robinson

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

RATING: PG-13 for drug content, language, sexual material and some violence

THE LOWDOWN: Four teens come of age and prepare for life after high school in a working-class Atlanta neighborhood where hip-hop music and roller-skating rule.

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