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"We grow up fast down here," explains 17-year-old Rashad Swann, describing his poor, south-Atlanta neighborhood of Mechanicsville. It's a place where cherished hopes and hard reality inevitably collide. "Dreaming," he says, quoting his deceased father, "is the luxury of children." And yet dreams fuel the imagination of Rashad and his peers as they prepare for life after high school.
With five weeks until graduation, Rashad and his three best buds, Esquire, Brooklyn and Teddy, are determined to squeeze as much out of life as possible before the responsibilities of adulthood intrude. Rashad, whose parents were killed in an automobile accident years before, is no stranger to the demanding realities of adult life. He works hard—whether it's raising his younger, trouble-prone brother, Ant, or making up for his Uncle George's laziness in their night jobs as janitors. In his quiet moments, Rashad harbors a dream of someday becoming a cartoonist.
As the clock winds down on Rashad's high school career, he and his friends spend most of their free time at a hip-hop roller-skating rink called Cascade, as well as at the public swimming pool and various fast-food joints where Brooklyn struggles to hold down a job. At Cascade, Rashad falls hard for a "ghetto fabulous" young woman who goes by the moniker New-New. Meanwhile, Esquire logs hours as a caddy at a local country club, cultivating contacts he needs to pursue his Ivy League dreams—a hope that seems within reach when he meets a prominent CEO named John Garnett.
But life takes an ominous turn when Ant succumbs to the allure of the street and begins peddling drugs for a local thug named Marcus. As Rashad tries to steer his wayward younger brother straight, he discovers that New-New isn't who she seemed to be, either, and that Esquire has known her real identity all along. Deeply hurt, Rashad struggles to come to grips with the fact that those he loves the most have badly disappointed him.
Mature beyond his years, Rashad demonstrates courage, self-sacrifice, a strong work ethic and long-term perspective. He also understands his parental role in Ant's life. When he suspects his brother has begun pushing drugs, Rashad tells him that he doesn't have to sell dope to make money—then shows him two fat rolls of cash he's saved to help put him through college. Later, Rashad confronts his little brother again, then risks his life by standing up to Ant's drug dealer. "I love you regardless [of what you do]," he tells his sibling. "But I can't be a man for you. You got to figure out the best way to do that yourself." Rashad hints that his character has been shaped by his father's integrity when he comments, "I keep trying to think of what my pops would do."
Esquire is also a hard worker, clocking plenty of hours at his country-club job. He's set his sights on an Ivy League education and is determined to make it happen, even if everyone makes fun of him for his high aspirations. Esquire also admits that he lied about where he was from to get a letter of recommendation for college from John Garnett. He then bravely challenges the older man to admit to his own daughter—whom he has banned from Cascade—that he grew up in poverty on the south side as well.
Uncle George tells a discouraged Rashad that maturity is about recognizing the difference between feelings and reality—implying that they're not the same thing. And when Rashad gets down on himself, New-New encourages him by saying, "I wish you could see what I see."
Cascade is depicted mostly as a safe haven for Rashad and his friends, a place where their camaraderie is the only thing that matters. One of them comments, "Here, it's like all our problems don't exist. Even if school sucks, the rent's past due, your girl left you, you can be whoever you want to be." An annual competition at the skating rink, called Skate Wars, encourages teamwork as different groups try to outdo one another with their skate-dancing routines.
Throughout the movie, minor details that are atypical to teen coming-of-age flicks seem to indicate the filmmakers' desire to present a strong moral worldview. For instance, girls at a party drink Red Bull instead of alcohol (although such blatant product placement arguably constitutes a different problem). And a mother chastises her twin daughters when she thinks her girls have shoplifted the expensive clothes they're wearing.
There are few explicitly spiritual moments in ATL, but the film's details reflect a subculture that's clearly been influenced by Christianity. After mentioning that the school year is almost over, a teacher editorializes, "Thank you, Jesus!" Rashad wears a cross. New-New has a figurine of Jesus in her bedroom. Uncle George eventually decides that he needs to go to church; when he does, he finds a woman to share his life with. Finally, lyrics from one of the soundtrack's songs suggest, "Pray to the Lord above to show me the way back home."
The film frequently emphasizes young women's bodies. Girls in tight pants, short shorts and cleavage-revealing tops show up in many scenes. One such shot focuses on the ample backside of a girl named "Big Booty Judy"—a "booty" one of the guys later grabs with both hands as he dances with her. (Judy quickly removes his over-eager paws.) Other teenage guys and girls dance suggestively in several scenes. Guys also leer at young women wearing tiny bikinis at the public pool (one of the young men labels the place "t-tty city"). Rashad has a picture of a scantily clad (or perhaps nude) woman on a wall in his bedroom.
In his rebellious phase, it's implied that Ant has sex in the backseat of a car with a girl he's just met. Rashad and New-New share a passionate make-out session on his bed that includes lots of kissing and her rubbing his bare stomach. The fact that they keep their clothes on, however, is perhaps intended as an example of self-control in contrast to Ant's impetuous choice regarding sex.
When New-New swings innocently around a pole in Rashad's basement bedroom, not-so-innocent innuendo creeps in when he jokes, "You like the pole?" Uncle George uses at least four different crude euphemisms for the female anatomy.
An angry Rashad hits his brother several times out of frustration when talking with him about his poor choices. Similarly, Ant gets manhandled by a rival gang that steals cash from him. The young man is also forced to feed Marcus' menacing, snarling pit bull terriers. Rashad and Marcus exchange blows in a skirmish. A character is shot during the scuffle (we don't see the impact of the bullet). Two men kick each other and exchange a volley of punches in a fistfight outside the roller rink. An accidental pileup among skaters at Cascade concludes with one character painfully whacking his mouth on another person's skate.
Crude or Profane Language
The most egregious language problems in ATL include one f-word, a dozen-plus s-words and three instances of "g--d--n." "A--," however, is the most frequent vulgarity, turning up about 25 times. About 25 other milder profanities are also used. Characters call each other "n-gga" at least four times. Brooklyn hurls a racial slur at his Indian store manager. Two songs on the soundtrack clearly include the s-word, "b--ch" and "n-gga," though harsher profanities in some songs were obviously censored.
Drug and Alcohol Content
John Garnett is a social drinker who consumes mixed drinks in several scenes and smokes a cigar in another. A moment in which he's angry with his daughter finds him going straight to the liquor decanter to pour himself a glass.
Marcus brags about drinking cognac while he's driving. He also mocks Ant for not smoking cigarettes. "What is it?" he sneers, "'Say no to drugs?' 'Dare to be different?'" Another gang member smokes a cigarette. The film never actually shows the drugs Ant and Marcus are distributing, but we do see Ant collecting money from fellow students.
Other Negative Elements
Uncle George nonchalantly accepts Ant's decision to become a dealer, quipping, "A little extra money won't hurt anything." When Rashad protests this suggestion, George lays a guilt trip on him, claiming that housing him and Ant has wrecked his prospects of ever getting married. While working, Uncle George sits down at someone's desk, cuts his toenails and leaves the trimmings on the desk. Ant steals his older brother's money to pay off a debt to his dealer.
John Garnett's daughter lies to him and his wife about where she goes. When he discovers where she's been hanging out, his ensuing reprimand is arguably too harsh. New-New doesn't tell Rashad the truth about her background.
If you've paid attention to the hip-hop and R&B scene over the past decade or so, you know that some of its biggest stars hail from Atlanta (OutKast, Lil Jon, Usher and Jermaine Dupri, to name a few). What you may not know is that in their younger years, many of these artists sought refuge from the drugs, gangs and violence of urban life at a roller-skating rink called Jellybeans.
One of ATL's filmmakers, Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins (who is also a founding member of TLC), talked about the influence Jellybeans had on her life: "If you are from Atlanta, and you were living in East Pointe or College Park in our time, you probably have either been to Jellybeans or heard of it at one time or another. It was urban kids putting their energy and creativity into musical expression and dancing. There was so much positive energy going on in that building that it almost breathed by itself. I've made a whole career out of what I learned going to Jellybeans every Sunday night."
T-Boz's upbeat movie captures that positive spirit. Specifically, the film demonstrates how we need other people to help us realize who we really are and to pursue our dreams. Rashad tells Ant, "I believe in you even when you're too stupid to believe in your d--n self." Similarly, New-New helps Rashad see that his hope of becoming a cartoonist is attainable. Esquire needs John Garnett's help, yet the older man has something to learn from this ambitious high school senior as well. In short, this is a story about a community of tight-knit friends who've learned to depend upon each another.
That account is definitely not without problem areas, especially when it comes to the characters' profanity and the camera's frequent focus on the female form. The filmmakers' attempt to render this urban teen world realistically apparently meant including such "authentic" edgy content. But in comparison to many other movies about young men and women coming of age in urban environments—many of which are R-rated and full of graphic drug use, violence, and even more profanity and sexual imagery—ATL has a moral core that emphasizes family, friendship, loyalty, hard work and resisting the dangerous influences of the street.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Tip "T.I." Harris as Rashad Swann; Evan Ross as Anton "Ant" Swann; Mykelti Williamson as Uncle George; Jackie Long as Esquire; Albert Daniels as Brooklyn; Jason Weaver as Teddy; Lauren London as New-New; Keith David as John Garnett; Antwan Andre Patton as Marcus
Chris Robinson ( )