Film Reviews | May 2, 2006 | Comments ()
Based on a script by skater/filmmaker Stacy Peralta, who mined the same material for his award-winning, autobiographical 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, Lords of Dogtown recreates the world of the Zephyr skate crew, working class kids from Venice, Calif., who infused surfing-inspired moves into skateboarding, bringing a new aesthetic and innovation that changed the sport forever. The film centers on three of the most legendary Dogtown skaters: Peralta (John Robinson, of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant), Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk, of Raising Victor Vargas), and Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch, of Imaginary Heroes). The plot follows a familiar arc, from the coming together of a group of naïve youths to their early success and subsequent seduction by money, sex, drugs, and fame.
The film occupies an unusual space; much of it may be confusing or misleading to those who haven’t seen Dogtown and Z-Boys or known the story previously, yet it fails to dramatize the story more effectively than Peralta’s documentary. The director, Catherine Hardwicke, whose only previous directing credit is the disturbingly convincing Thirteen (though she has had a distinguished career as a production designer), has some of the same weaknesses that Peralta brought to his documentary — an over-reliance on the shaky camera and swift editing and the concomitant reluctance to just let the audience see what she’s showing — she simultaneously lacks the ability to balance the exhilarating action with the TV-movie-style familial dysfunction of Peralta’s script.
Adams’ troubled mother Philaine is played by Rebecca De Mornay (having made her mark as Tom Cruise’s hooker paramour in Risky Business, here she’s ironically paired with Cruise’s C-List cousin William Mapother) as a blowzy wastoid in a Jethro Tull t-shirt who survives by assembling tacky lamps in a factory. We also meet Alva’s dad (Julio Oscar Mechoso), a hard-working, conservative Chicano who thinks Tony’s wasting his life with this skating nonsense, and Peralta’s father (Rene Rivera), who uses the water shortage as an excuse to drink his liquor straight.
The central performances, though, are generally richer and more complexly thought out. As Adams, the wild child among wild children, Hirsch is, as always, better than he needs to be. He brings real complexity and depth to the troubled, self-destructive figure, though when the handsome blond falls in with a Chicano gang and gets a slogan tattooed across his Adam’s apple, it doesn’t feel credible; there’s little preparation for it, and it doesn’t fit with what we’ve learned about him. Even better is Rasuk, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the young Alva. His greed and egomania is persuasive without becoming off-putting. Robinson, though, is a pretty blank; with his feminine features and lack of affect, it’s never clear what’s going on inside him, and it’s far too easy to believe it might be nothing. And as Sid, the wannabe skater with the chronic inner-ear problem, Michael Angarano provides both comic relief and pathos in a way that feels needlessly contrived.
Zephyr co-founder Jeff Ho has been left out of the story (legal reasons or just concision?) and characteristics of his personality have been morphed into his partner, Skip Engblom, played by an unrecognizable Heath Ledger. Looking like Val Kilmer in the disintegrating scenes from The Doors, Ledger gives a performance of unanticipated depth and reality. Englom is depicted as both den mother and exploiter, a bossy egomaniac who still loves his skate team and feels betrayed when they’re seduced away by promoters with promises of big money.
Peralta’s connect-the-dots approach hits the familiar notes of teenage rebellion and licentiousness versus parental disapproval and/or greater licentiousness, but he does little to capture the joy, inventiveness, or esthetic rigor on display in Z-Boys. Context is lost, as when the boys seem to develop their skating style out of nowhere rather than from the influence of surfer Larry Bertelman. Hardwicke’s shooting of the skate and surf scenes (using cinematographer Elliot Davis, with whom she worked on Thirteen) captures the excitement and omnipresent danger — though it’s often so close in that we lose the essential context — but the dialogue scenes are poorly integrated, making them seem perfunctory. These scenes lack rhythm; they don’t build, they just show up, perform their required function, and dissipate into nothing. There’s an essential dissonance between these familiar scenes of familial discord and the immediacy of Hardwicke’s shaky, documentary-style camera work.
Hardwicke is effective, though, in establishing the creativity of the Z-Boys; when they compete at a the Bahne Cadillac Nationals in 1975, we get a glimpse of their old-school competition and they’re so hopelessly lame that we might as well be watching the jousters at a Medieval fair; everything the Z-Boys does seems terribly alive and exciting in comparison. But the script queers the deal by tossing in a conflict (fictional, I assume) that wasn’t included in Z-Boys and fudging the results of the contest.
Several members of the Zephyr team worked as skating and technical consultants and pop up in the film as extras or stunt people in the production. Peralta and Alva both make cameos, and ultimate skating legend Tony Hawk, who began his career skating with Peralta’s Bones Brigade, makes an ironic appearance as an astronaut who instantly wipes out when he tries Peralta’s board during a photo op. The skating is always convincing and ridiculously impressive (though we know the more impressive maneuvers must have been performed by doubles), but it never achieves the oh-my-God-I-can’t-believe-he’s-doing-that level of the documentary footage. No skater needs to be told to see Lords; no non-skater should waste his time when Z-Boys is so readily available on DVD and video.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.