by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & ATL & r & & r & ATL is great. Too bad about the plot -- that there even is one, I mean. The film, written by Tina Gordon Chism (Drumline) and based on a story by Antwone Fisher, is full of unique characters and relationships set in a town (Atlanta) and region (the Dirty South) that gets short shrift. From this underused milieu, Chism has created a half-dozen wonderful, fully-enfleshed characters. Friends Brooklyn, Esquire, Teddy and Rashad (rapper T.I.) offer unique facets of urban youth without playing to stereotypes. The relationship between the boys, and between Rashad and his brother Anton, is playful and rewards us by offering a slice of regional flavor to what is often considered a homogenous culture (the inner-city). Chism also takes care to surprise us with her creations. Uncle George (Mykelti Williamson), a miser and general failure, is given a powerful scene that makes us rethink our conclusions about him. Even the minor characters, though static, are written with warmth, charm and edge. Everyone in this film has a story and a pulse. Such things are all too rare.

Atop all that deep, fertile novelty, though, is a hokey, generic plot-cum-ghetto parable that very nearly strips the film of its immediacy and cultural import. It's a simplistic coming-of-age story that could have happened literally anywhere. The plot is utterly forgettable. No, I take that back. It's not forgettable. Quite the opposite. This story has been done so many times it's hard-wired in our brains. X meets Y; Y is from wrong side of tracks but conceals it; X finds out, is angry; X realizes that class doesn't matter; X and Y reconcile. Were it not for the dealin' and bangin', this could be Pretty in Pink. Unforgettable, then, but in the worst way.

Sprinkled in are more genre clich & eacute;s. The gang elements and drug slangin' add one part Clockers and one part Boyz N the Hood. The roller-rink socializing, obviously, adds a dash of Roll Bounce. It's not that drugs are done or that the princess/pauper thing is tired, it's that Chism doesn't weave anything new into it. This is, quite literally, the ghetto fable you've seen a dozen times over. Further, Chism doesn't trust us to grasp the moral of the story -- feeling the need, instead, to assault us with it. T.I.'s performance flounders on these crappy moralistic overtures, but not because he's a bad actor. (He's quite good.) But he doesn't sell these scenes because he can't believe the crap he's been told to say. The roller-rink thing works not for the skating competition conceit, but for the intricacies of the youth culture that has grown up around it.

It's too bad that Chism felt the need to shoehorn all these plot contrivances in. It's a shame she didn't have the courage to just create some characters and let them kick it. The film is 30 minutes too long (almost the entire plot is crammed into the film's final third) which effectively grinds the smart nonchalance of the first two acts to a saccharine, hackneyed crawl. Thankfully, Chism cuts and runs before the film becomes totally unwatchable. It's a flawed film, and a film that gets worse as it wears on. When it's firing on all cylinders, though, and is content to lose itself in its characterizations, ATL is a beautiful and hilarious look at the life in the South. It just could've been more.

Vandal Summer Cinema Series

Fridays, Sat., Aug. 21 and Thu., Aug. 26. Continues through Aug. 20
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