It can be difficult these days, if you’ve seen a lot of movies, to see something that feels original or unique. Particularly when it comes to plot, it’s easy to pigeonhole movies into select genres. That’s what makes Atlantics so enjoyable, it manages to blend genres easily in a setting we don’t often get to see on film.
Set in Dakar, Senegal, Atlantics is about a community of young people dealing with everyday problems, until they aren’t. At first, we’re introduced to Souleiman, a young construction worker who, along with his buddies, hasn’t been paid for months while working to build a fancy high-rise hotel. He’s in love with a young girl, Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), in that tentative and smitten way so common with teenagers. But Ada is already engaged to someone else, a fancy businessman that promises a life of luxury. Fed up with not getting paid and likely desperate to impress Ada, Souleiman decides to leave the country in a boat to make his way to Europe, leaving Ada behind to an unknown future.
Atlantics has elements of stories we’ve seen before, but they all start to meld into one another. A story of forbidden love turns into a mystery, which then turns supernatural, all over a coming of age story. Our protagonist, which you assume is Souleiman and quickly becomes Ada, is a fully-fledged human. As a teenager living at home, she is both stubborn and pliant, scared and defiant. Determined to figure out what’s happened to Souleiman, she ends up colliding with an up-and-coming young detective (Amadou Mbow), who quickly finds himself smack in the middle of his own investigation.
This first feature from French director Mati Diop benefits greatly from being set in Dakar, her father’s home town. It’s a setting not often seen in Western theaters, but it gives the film both a sense of familiarity and newness. The film does not shy away from being fiercely Senegalese and resists explaining the details of the culture, leaving it up to the dusty streets, ocean views and conversation snippets to give enough context clues to get Western audiences through.
While Atlantics wouldn’t be considered required viewing, it’s a great first feature and hypnotic film set in a space that Westerners know woefully little about. Still, even with its unfamiliar setting, Diop has created a film with universal themes that seamlessly blends genres.