The one and only time I tried my hand at skateboarding was during the mid-seventies. I was a 16-year-old growing up in Ohio and a family friend, Ian, was visiting from California. Ian was 100 percent pure California surfer dude: shoulder-length sun-bleached hair, bronze tan, naturally muscular — and he zipped around with grace, speed and style on his skateboard as though it was part of his very being.
He urged me to try it. So I did. With less-than-graceful results. Each time I’d creep forward at a snail’s pace of five-miles-per-hour, I’d do a vertical flip off the board and land with a solid thud on my ass. Not relishing the self-inflicted bruising, I gave up after a few attempts. Clearly, skateboarding wasn’t my thing. Back to butterfly collecting for me.
Watching Lords of Dogtown last weekend did more than bring back memories of my skateboarding mishap. It allowed me to better appreciate the lure of the skateboard, to vicariously experience the kinetic thrill of racing around on a city street or up the side of an empty swimming pool. Most importantly, it permitted me a greater understanding of the subculture from which the extreme sport arose, a subculture that completely eluded a young kid living in Cincinnati.
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke and written by Stacy Peralta, one of the original Z-Boys, Lords of Dogtown is in fact a dramatic expansion of the latter’s 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys. That earlier film chronicled the rise of skateboarding from placid “don’t knock down the orange cones” competition to touch-the-sky athletic artform. The switchover was as much due to a scientific innovation — urethane wheels gave skateboards the ability to “grip” walls — as it was to the brazenly fearless nature of the Z-Boys. The three core Z-Boys — Peralta, Jay Adams and Tony Alva — were legendary pioneers for a generation of thrill-seekers to come. Peralta and Alva went on to become icons (although the troubled Adams is generally regarded as the wild seed who started it all), but Hardwick is careful not to elevate them beyond human, keeping the story at a relatable scale.
Adams, Alva and Peralta are your basic teens: hormonally supercharged, looking for ways to kill time and cause mild disruptions in the rundown Venice Beach area that serves as their playground. They congregate, like a pack of blond-haired wolves, at suburban pools, rendered water-free by a drought that plagued the region at the time. It’s in these pools that they hone their skills. Soon they’re winning local competitions with slick, groundbreaking moves, all under the erratic guidance of Zephyr Surfshop owner, Skip Engblom, a wiped-out, alcohol-fortified hippie. The Z-Boys live for Engblom’s approval — particularly Peralta, who is the conservative, responsible member of the crew — but it’s not long before they’re seduced by greater offers of fame, fortune and product endorsements.
Lords of Dogtown follows a fairly straightforward path in its depiction of events, although at times the narrative feels a little over-simplified and falsely romanticized. It doesn’t ring as true as it might have. It’s also less sensational than Hardwick’s last project, Thirteen, a compelling depiction of teens, sex and drugs. Lords isn’t out to shock us. Its goal is to celebrating the unbridled spirit of these skateboard-obsessed boys. The movie is held aloft by elation and exuberance, and while it lacks dramatic density overall, Hardwick does manage a few moments that rip away at your heart.
Harwicke elicits astounding performances from her young actors: pretty, soft-featured John Robinson as the gentle, sensitive Peralta; Victor Rasuk as the aggressive, combustible Alva; and Emile Hirsch as the corrosive, brooding Adams.
Robinson and Rasuk are both marvelous, but Hirsch steals the film with his smoldering, anger-fueled portrayal of Adams, the one Z-Boy whose life did not follow a path glory. The heir apparent to Leonardo DiCaprio, Hirsch is blessed with an powerful magnetism that compels you to pay attention to whatever he’s doing at the time, whether it’s demolishing a surfboard in a fit of rage or hungrily honing in on Peralta’s girlfriend.
Michael Angarano is affecting as Sid, a fellow Z-Boy whose inner-ear problems prevent him from fully participating in the reindeer games. Sid lives vicariously through his friends, a point strongly made in a tenderly realized finale that shows these kids as more than hellraisers, but as friends, tried, true, trusted.
Heath Ledger is an over-the-top blast as the scraggly Engblom, a loser who serves as a launching pad for the Z-Boys. And Rebecca DeMornay is bracing as Adams’s drug-addled mother; the strain she puts on her son defines his soured being.
Ultimately, Lords of Dogtown is a celebratory experience, paying homage to those who, out of a lack of anything better to do, out of a desire to surf the world’s “concrete waves,” created an outright phenomenon.