Lords of Dogtown (2005)


I met the sk8er boi, I said see ya later boi.
I’ll be backstage after the show.
I’ll be at the studio, singing the song he wrote about a girl he used to know.
— Avril Lavigne, “Sk8er Boi”

The most thrilling moments in Lords of Dogtown involve skateboard wheels. More precisely, they involve cameras mounted atop or under skateboards, so that sound and speed — the whirring of wheels, slamming over pavement, and hurtling headlong into limited space — seem immediate and specific, not attached to a character per se, but adrenaline-rushing good fun.

Unfortunately, though this stunty camerawork (courtesy of DP Elliot Davis) is striking, it only takes up so much time in the movie. The rest of Catherine Hardwicke’s second feature (her first was the affecting Thirteen) tells a surprisingly formulaic, eventually pretty dull story. Based on the real life escapades of the same skaters at the center of writer Stacy Peralta’s documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, in turn based on a 1999 Spin article and Peralta’s own experiences as one of those young and fearless skaters, the fictionalized film is, in the end, less about youthful rebellion and wild riding pools than about capitulation.

This despite a storyline that leans heavily on a resist-the-system theme, embodied by three wily wannabe Venice Beach surfers turned champion skaters — Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), Peralta (John Robinson), and Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch) — and their initial mentor, scruffy Zephyr team founder Skip Engblom (Heath Ledger, whose performance draws conspicuously on Val Kilmer’s tic-ish sincerity). A longtime surfer and angry alcoholic, Skip sucks his words through his teeth and preaches against giving in to what will be a very lucrative commercial worldview. The virtuoso skaters are laying foundations for Tony Hawk, video games, and the X Games, of course, and each of the three approaches the problem of “giving in” differently.

Skip plays loud music (Hendrix is a favorite), berates the kids by way of putting them through tough paces on their boards, even provides them with a vague sense of belonging when he gives them t-shirts and a team name. In return, he demands loyalty and dedication, and each of the boys responds differently, thus granting the film a kind of Fighting 69th shape (hailing from different ethnic and class backgrounds, the kids are tossed into metaphorical trenches, where they learn to become better people though a series of travails). The primary three are surrounded by other skaters, including a girl who gets little screen time and the mascottish, hardworking Sid (Michael Angarano), whose eventual illness (heavily hinted at early on) provides yet another source of guilt and bonding.

As the boys confront a suddenly burgeoning celebrity (beginning with pretty blonds hanging on them as local California skating competitions and escalating quickly into all-night parties, televised competitions, and endorsements), the devil greed is incarnated by the opportunistic promoter Topper (Johnny Knoxville pimped out to resemble Kid Rock). He makes the same offer to each of the three boys, separately calling each, separately, “the best skater” he’s ever seen, deserving of contracts and adulation, as these become intertwined in the process of celebrity.

Alva, believing his own hype, falls first, leaving behind not only his buddies but also his sister Kathy (Nikki Reed, bad girl co-star and co-writer of Thirteen). She first has her sights set on shy Stacy, then transfers to Jay, more eager as a lover and more deeply invested in maintaining his version of integrity, that is, a devotion to the sport in opposition to making a buck. That said, making a buck isn’t such a terrible idea, as he also needs to support his weary mom Philaine (Rebecca De Mornay). When he’s called on by an exceedingly corny promoter to sing the Slinky theme song, however, Jay rebels, shaving his head and joining up with a crew that affects the “ese” look — flannel shirts and chinos.

All of this melodramatic plotting leaves the movie rather bogged down in clich√©s (even as it’s intermittently powered by Davis’s images and Mark Mothersbaugh’s score), such that it’s hard not to know what’s coming next at each seeming decision point. On one level, this flies in the face of the audaciously inventive spirit the film commemorates. The kids’ freestyle skating is presented here as an act of defiance and love of life. They struggle half-heartedly to hang onto their own creativity and not trade it off for a guest spot on Charlie’s Angels (which is where Peralta lands himself) or a photo-oppy visit with an astronaut played by Tony Hawk Himself.

Such moments underline the endlessly self-reflexive circularity of the whole selling out dilemma. And that is Lords of Dogtown‘s unresolvable issue. Replicating and to an extent exacerbating the skaters’ frustrations, it gives in to what seem irresistible forces — commodification, reduction, and even seduction. As the boys fight one another and carve out their own identities by types, they collapse under their own mythology. Much as it wants to celebrate their creativity and nerve, the movie can’t quite erase their immaturity and crass conformity. Afraid and confused, they make kid mistakes, abuse each other’s trust and don’t imagine long-term consequences. But if this makes sense and even a decent storyline, it doesn’t make for a movie-style moral. You don’t want your audience thinking that happy endings are impossible. And so you tack on a bit that veers from what’s come before and hope no one notices the illogic of boys bonding in quite this magical way.

They are also set alongside the irritated-to-the-end Skip, who loses his business when the kids sign with other promoters but hangs onto some distorted form of his surfer boy idealism. You can’t run a company, pay bills, and make deadlines when your primary purpose is ensuring access to waves when they come. He’s in love with tide rhythms and can’t find joy in paying rent. More power to him, as Skip’s semi-vision simultaneously shapes and exceeds the film.