Lords of Dogtown

First, the good news: Catherine Hardwicke’s fictionalized, feature-film adaptation of Stacy Peralta’s scintillating 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys is a great time-machine of a movie. Watching it is like being transported to a place where the air is forever thick with the smell of pot and surf wax, where Black Sabbath blasts from the speakers of VW minibuses and the sun is always the color of bleached-blonde hair. Like the best skate movies, it’s rowdy and kinetic, with some fantastic on-the-fly camerawork. And also like even the best skate movies, it can be almost unbearably shallow, banal and sketched-in.

For those who haven’t seen the original documentary, Lords of Dogtown is the story of a handful of boys and one girl who, with the help of their pothead beach bum mentor and the miracle of polyurethane, revolutionized the sport of skateboarding in the mid-’70s. A pursuit that previously resided somewhere below yo-yo on the excitement scale, skating suddenly became an underground phenomenon, a lifestyle and, inevitably, a multimillion-dollar industry, all thanks to the efforts of a few kids from the wrong side of the Santa Monica tracks. Among the misfits represented here: hothead Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), brooding bad boy Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), the Pied Piper-ish Skip Engblom (Heath Ledger) and the supposedly level-headed Stacy Peralta himself (John Robinson).

It’s hard to imagine a time when there were any scuzzy, decrepit areas of gentrified Santa Monica, but Hardwicke — director of the trumped-up girl-druggie saga Thirteen and a former production designer — renders the city in sharp detail, right down to the last roach clip and pair of asphalt-scuffed Vans. She impressively mimics archive footage of the actual Z-Boys skate competitions, going so far as to use some of the same shots and grainy film stock.

Unfortunately, Hardwicke and neophyte screenwriter Peralta are so obsessed with period details that they lose sight of the skaters. The script mercifully doesn’t give the kids a mystery to solve (Gleaming the Cube, anyone?) or a turf war to wage (i.e. Thrashin’). It’s admirably formless and meandering, but an outsider’s point of view could have given the actors meaningful character arcs or at least conflicts. As it stands, the movie is little more than a gloss on the typical "don’t let money change you" theme, with Peralta himself coming off as a bit of a martyr. According to the film he’s penned, Peralta is the only one who can handle success and the only one who doesn’t lose sight of himself — but how he manages this is a mystery.

The performers, most of them talented teen refugees from the indie circuit, try their best to infuse the characters with some gravity, but their efforts are inconsistent. At its worst, the movie is a mess of shaky shots of long-haired boys shouting indiscriminately. The one exception is Robinson, who has a natural, unforced delivery that perfectly recalls Peralta’s own acting debut, 1976’s Freewheelin’. In that laughable skate-sploitation relic, Peralta played a teen skater whose biggest dream is to sell out to a corporate sponsor. By unnecessarily fictionalizing a story he’s already told better in his own documentary, it’s apparent that Peralta hasn’t lost sight of that dream.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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