'ATL' tells story of the city

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After seeing "ATL," it will make perfect sense that Will Smith was one of the producers.

Evan Ross Naess, left, portrays Anton "Ant" Swann, and Markice Moore is Austin in "ATL," a coming-of-age story.

Click photo for larger image.


Rating: PG-13 for drug content, language, sexual material and some violence.
Starring: Evan Ross Naess, Tip 'T.I.' Harris, Antwan "Big Boi" Patton
Director: Chris Robinson
"ATL" web site

To make a movie that takes the "growing up in the ghetto" cliche and dashes it to pieces -- replacing it with an inner-city world that is accurate in spirit, language, hilarity and complexity -- is no small task.

But it does smack of Smith's work. Except for "Bagger Vance," at least.

Centering on the struggles of a pair of South Side Atlanta orphans, "ATL" tells the story of a year in the life of Rashad (platinum-selling rap artist Tip "T.I." Harris) and his little brother "Ant" (Evan Ross Naess).

Two years after their parents' death in an auto accident, the brothers find themselves sharing their parents' home with -- and bearing the brunt of the financial responsibility for -- their lagabout uncle (Mykelti Williamson, of NBC's defunct "Boomtown").

Rashad is determined to be more like his father than his uncle. So, after taking the reins of the family business before even his junior year in high school, he scrimps and saves, works constantly (and legitimately) and does his best to keep a tight rein on Ant.

Here Harris shines. Though admittedly not a stretch -- he's playing a character 85 percent identical to his onstage/album persona (who is decidedly proudly lawless) -- this most recent rapper-turned-actor comes across as strongly on screen as he does with his music.

The movie also sports a music pedigree worthy of Harris' success. Not only does the move feature as its hero a man whose second and third albums both sold over 1 million units, but the villain is played by none other than Antwan "Big Boi" Patton.

You might remember him as one-half of OutKast, which sold 10 million copies of its Grammy Award-winning 2004 release "Speakerboxx/The Love Below."

One of the best things about the movie is its ability to replicate the telling combination of ready humor, lyrical urban banter and desperate poverty, all of which rule -- but do not necessarily or universally ruin -- young life in the ghetto.

Though the temptation of the streets rather predictably endangers everyone involved, and the acting does at times falter, most notably in the preppy but driven role of Rashad's best friend Esquire, this movie is a joy to watch.

Don't go looking to see some sort of art film. It is, admittedly, all rather convenient and pat in its resolution. But do go to listen, to learn and -- excepting a heart of stone -- to hope along with these sympathetic characters.

Philip A. Stephenson can be reached at pstephenson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1419.


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