Lords of Dogtown

| June 3, 2005

The signature line from the Lords of Dogtown trailer, which is meant to convey the film’s rock’n'roll tone, is “We’re gonna be on summer vacation for the rest of our lives!” Little more than halfway through the film, however, it’s obvious that the people behind it, director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen) and writer and original Lord of Dogtown Stacy Peralta, who also directed the excellent non-fiction take on the subject, Dogtown and Z-boys, have something different in mind. They have made a film that is less about the carefree lives of the teenage skateboard revolutionaries than it is about sacrificing the innocence and joy of childhood to the pressures and demands of adult responsibility.
Lords of Dogtown focuses on Stacy Peralta (John Robinson), Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk) and Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch). They are the best skaters to emerge from a pack of surf rats that hang around Skip Engblom’s (Heath Ledger, in a hilarious, unexpected performance) Zephyr Surf Shop. With the help of surf moves, empty swimming pools, urethane wheels and punk attitudes, they revolutionize skateboarding. Where the real-life Peralta’s documentary focused more on the Z-boys’, as they came to be known, effect on pop culture, this fictional version takes a stronger look at the personal lives and personalities of the three kids at the phenomenon’s center.
We get little insight into Peralta’s family situation but he is shown to be a responsible, industrious kid with a good head on his shoulders and his personality is the least changed by the end of the film. Both Adams’ and Alva have tumultuous home lives; Adams is thrust into being the family’s breadwinner for his dissolute mother, and Alva’s father is shown to be abusive to the skater and his sister. When the movie begins, despite Stacy’s close friendships with the other kids, his healthy qualities don’t exactly endear him to Engblom’s older crew of ringleaders, self-styled “pirates” who consider Peralta an outsider. When Stacy wins a skating competition, riding as an independent, the opportunistic Engblom reneges and adds him to the Zephyr team. From then on the sky is the limit and the Zephyr kids leap at their chance for wealth and notoriety.
Barsuk hits all the right poses as the flamboyant Alva, the rock star of the trio, who is obsessed with both getting out from under his father’s abusive thumb and fulfilling his demand that he not end up a ditch-digger. Unfortunately, the character is one we’ve seen before and no matter how well the actor plays the obnoxious, ego-driven star, it’s nothing new.
Similarly, Stacy Peralta is portrayed as a boy scout and as a result, the character is a long-haired bore. Robinson is left with little to play. It’s interesting to note that Peralta wrote himself the dullest character, letting the charismatic Alva and disaffected Adams dominate the movie.
As Adams, Emile Hirsch puts forth the strongest performance in the film, at least when Ledger’s off-kilter Engblom isn’t stealing scenes. Early in the film the gifted, passionate young skater’s father figure bails on Jay and his loving yet spaced-out mother (Rebecca DeMorney, plausibly flaky and discomfiting) and Adams floats from one group to another as the Zephyrs fragment under the weight of their newfound fame and fortune. Hirsch affectingly captures Adams’ tenderness and despair as he becomes increasingly unmoored watching his friends leave their summer vacation behind. He continues to skate purely for the love of it and, perhaps as a result of his fearless, agenda-free skating, is largely regarded as the best of the bunch. As the movie progresses he is slowly abandoned by the others and, desperate for a connection, he latches onto whatever he can as everything else slips away.
Hardwicke’s follow-up to Thirteen, her harrowing tale of teens-gone-wild, has authentically captured the feel of Southern California in the late ’70s. Along with Peralta and an excellent cast, Dogtown can be both moving and exciting. While Barsuk and Robinson’s characterizations veer a bit too close to familiar archetypes, Hirsch and Ledger, along with some nice supporting work from the rest of the ensemble, are able to ground the movie in some real emotion as Engblom’s creation leaves him behind and Adams’ passion can’t outpace his demons.
Unfortunately, Peralta’s own documentary did a better job at conveying just how revolutionary and impactful the Z-boys were. While the soundtrack and stunt work keeps the skating scenes moving, the excitement that should be palpable feels like a copy of a copy, especially when put next to the non-fiction version. It’s an enjoyable movie but it lacks some of the vitality that the documentary had in showing actual footage of these kids using their passion and talent to create something unique and entirely their own, only to nearly get swallowed by it all in the process.

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