Rated PG-13, 100 min. Directed by Chris Robinson. Starring Tip Harris, Evan Ross, Mykelti Williamson, Jackie Long, Jason Weaver, Albert Daniels, Lauren London, Keith David.
An urban drama featuring talented young actors navigating the circuitous path to adulthood while spending their downtime at the local roller rink – didn't we already see this six months ago? You'll be forgiven for thinking this wicked smart examination of black kids in modern Atlanta might be in some way comparable to Malcolm D. Lee's recent homage to the Seventies – Roll Bounce (a fine, funky film in its own right) – but, apart from the twinned themes of roller skates and true-blue friendship, the comparisons end there. (Although if Lee and Robinson – not to mention ATL's screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism, whose script is based on an original story by parking-attendant-turned-screenwriter Antwone Fisher, and Norman Vance Jr., the scripter of Roll Bounce – ever get together they might well create the greatest roller-skating drama the world has ever seen – sorry, Xanadu.) Populated by a smooth, engaging cast of relative unknowns and hip-hop up-and-comers, Robinson's debut feature glides along with the thoughtful, honest assurance you'd expect from a more seasoned director and is buoyed by an eclectic soundtrack that mines both the past and future of hip-hop. Harris (aka Atlanta-based rapper T.I.) plays Rashad, the nominal head of a parentless household that also includes his Uncle George (Williamson) and younger brother Ant (Ross). When he's not pulling late nights with the family janitorial service or pining for ghetto-stunner-with-a-secret New-New (London), he's struggling to keep his more volatile brother out of the clutches of the neighborhood gangsta/drug dealer. It's only at the Cascade roller rink – which acts much as the burger stand in American Graffiti did – that Rashad and his posse can cut loose and pitch the proverbial woo restlessly circling their glittering, flat-track dreamland. Which, come to think of it, is as apt a metaphor for teenage life and its attendant emotional spirals as anything George Lucas has managed in 30 years. Much of the credit goes to writer Chism, who imbues even the most minor supporting players with far more nuanced characterizations than you might expect (Daniels' mouthy Brooklyn is a hoot, and Ross' conflicted Ant is as real as it gets). I'd be remiss not to mention the work of cinematographer Karsten Gopinath and editor David Blackburn, who together give what might have otherwise been a tedious rehash of Boyz N the Hood Go South-isms a fluid, seamless, and genuinely exhilarating pulse. Despite a third-act tendency to gather a few spare genre clichés as it rolls along (Guns! Drugs! Angry siblings!), Robinson's film is a cut above the rest, seeming simultaneously wise beyond its years and electrically, youthfully playful. Of course, it's not the ATX, but then, what is?
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