The star of this movie is first-time director Chris Robinson, who took an appealing but conventional story of five friends on the brink of adulthood and made it come alive with a vibrant, pulsing, slightly cynical but ultimately hopeful tone that perfectly matches its characters.
In voice-over, Rashad (rap star T.I.) tells us that “down south you grow up quick.” A senior in high school already supporting his family, he no longer has a child’s “luxury of dreams.” And over the credits we see the “ATL,” the bleak landscape of Atlanta’s south side, and we hear Ray Charles’ sentimental tribute “Georgia” turned into a hiccuping stuck record mixed with something harsher. This mash-up sets the stage for the conflicts the characters face between where they’ve been and where they want to go.
Esquire (Jackie Long) is ambitious. He attends a tony private school and works at an even tonier country club. He needs a letter of recommendation to get a scholarship to attend an Ivy League school. His guidance counselor advises him to try to get someone important to write the letter — “Sometimes it’s not what you know, but who you know.”
Some of Esquire’s friends are ambivalent about whether they should want to leave their neighborhood, but Esquire is very clear that he wants what the greater world has to offer, maybe even a Picasso in his home like successful businessman .
Rashad is less concerned about his own future than he is about his brother, Ant (Evan Ross Naess, son of Supremes star Diana Ross). Their parents were killed in a car crash and their uncle sees them as a burden. Rashad supports the family cleaning office buildings at night. He meets “ghetto fabulous” New New (Lauren London) whose faith in him inspires him, but who has a secret that will come between them.
Rashad’s other friends are Brooklyn (Albert Daniels) and Teddy (Jason Weaver), who seem to find what they are seeking without leaving home.
Robinson uses techniques from music videos (he has directed top-rated videos for a galaxy of hip-hop stars) to silent films (title cards help introduce the characters and scenes and in one witty conversation subtitles translate the otherwise impenetrable vernacular used by a character). The energetic camerawork is always superbly controlled, the edits evoking the restlessness and uncertainty of the characters but always making us feel that we are in the hands of an assured story-teller with a compellingly authentic sense of place and character. The story by Antoine Fisher reflects the real-life experiences of a number of performers from that neighborhood, including Outkast star Big Boi, who appears as a drug dealer ready to step in to become a father figure for a young man looking for a role model. (Note the small shout-out to one of Fisher’s most famous lines in the film about his own life when someone asks Esquire if he is hungry.)
Robinson also works well with his young cast. They each make strong impressions but what is most impressive is the ensemble; you don’t just think they’ve been acting forever — you think they’ve been friends forever. he shows us that it is indeed not what you know but who you know — what matters to these characters is that they know each other and what matters to us is that Robinson knows them, and that, as this movie unfolds, we feel that we do, too.
Parents should know that the film has a lot of mature material. Characters use strong language for a PG-13, including the n-word. Characters smoke, steal, and deal drugs. There are sexual references, some crude, and sexual situations, including casual sex (seen as triumphant from the male point of view). There is also some violence, including shooting and punching. There are tense family confrontations and references to the death of parents. A strength of the movie is its portrayal of some of the challenges of discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and class.
Families who see this movie should talk about why these characters were friends. What was New-New afraid would happen if she told the truth? What did she want that she could not find at home? What did Esquire want that he could not find at home? Who in the movie uses different ways of talking in different situations? Why? What was it that the characters loved about the Cascades and why did there seem to be so many possibilities there? What does it mean to be “ghetto fabulous?” How does it affect Rashad to have New New believe in him and how does it affect Ant that Rashad says, “I believe in you even when you’re too stupid to believe in yourself?”
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Roll Bounce, a sweeter, lighter, more nostalgic take on some of the same themes, along with the many other classics about friends on the brink of adulthoood, including Breaking Away, Raising Victor Vargas, and American Graffiti. They might also enjoy this interview with director Chris Robinson.