by Rob Gonsalves
Whatever else 'Lords of Dogtown' is, it's a chronicle of a brief moment in American teen culture.Classic rock was on the way out (though it didn't know it yet) in favor of disco and punk. Long hair was soon to be shaved into mohawks. And surfing, a holdover from the '60s, was about to make way for its urban counterpart, skateboarding -- which, by its very anti-adult ethos (those damn kids skate everywhere!), was infinitely cooler. Roughly, Lords of Dogtown spans from 1975 to about 1977; Richard Linklater's modern classic Dazed and Confused falls squarely in the middle of that time frame, and Dogtown has a similar restless energy, powered by comfortably familiar guitar riffs. You don't have to care much about skateboarding (I really don't) to find the movie exhilarating and engaging.
"Another restlessly engaging teen movie from Catherine Hardwicke."
This story of three kids from Venice, California -- Stacy Peralta (John Robinson), Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), and Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch) -- who invented a new, aggressive form of skateboarding has been told before, in Peralta's own acclaimed 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys. I missed that one, but what attracted me to Lords of Dogtown was its gifted director, Catherine Hardwicke, a former production designer (she worked on two Linklater films as well as the brilliantly cluttered Tank Girl) who made her directorial debut in 2003 with the fiercely moving drama Thirteen. That film was about the anguish of teenage girls; this one, about teenage boys living their dreams, is much bouncier, paced like a bullet and wearing its '70s milieu lightly. Hardwicke understands that a director needn't focus on a Farrah Fawcett poster to evoke the era.
The boys initially compete under the tutelage of Skip Engblom, a dissipated surf-shop owner played, in his first genuine performance I can recall, by Heath Ledger. Skip looks at the kids and sees dollar signs, though he's also snobbish and intense about board sport in a way that goes beyond calculation. Sneering through fake teeth and getting into drunken brawls, Ledger is like John Malkovich channeling Val Kilmer channeling Jim Morrison. He also has one of the great final scenes in recent movies, when Skip, reduced to making boards in someone else's shop, cranks up "Maggie May" on the radio and sings along, treating the lyrics like defiant air-punches.
Lords of Dogtown is structured so that the boys are split apart by their new fame -- Stacy and Tony rocket to the top, while Jay, troubled by the travails of his single mom (Rebecca De Mornay in a touching performance), falls into self-abnegating anger. (His head-shaving scene soon after he recoils from a stupid endorsement for Slinky seems to bring a deliberate close to an era; punk has arrived, and punks don't sing the Slinky song.) Yet Peralta, who wrote the script, and Hardwicke don't make the mistake of inflating the boys' crises into a Dirk Diggler tragedy. The boys got drunk and high and laid, had a blast, and became the princes of their specialized field. Still, when the guys get together for one last skateboarding spree in an empty swimming pool -- accompanied by a fallen Z-boy whose cancer sidelined him -- you're glad to see them getting back to their roots. Jetting around America to skateboarding events and being paid insane money for endorsements is cool, but, man, just goofing around on the board with your buddies is what it's all about.
You won't find much of a dark side in Lords of Dogtown. That's because Catherine Hardwicke, like Richard Linklater before her, has a gentle and indulgent view of teenagers; she's with them throughout their trials and errors, and she's literally right there with them in the skateboarding sequences, in which the extraordinarily fluid camerawork makes us feel as if we're riding alongside the boys. Hardwicke's light touch is there, too, in the scenes when the guys break into people's houses to skate in their pools, or when hot tempers and fat egos lead to fights. The whole movie has the chuckling tone of Stacy Peralta looking back fondly, and Hardwicke, fast on her feet, sprints successfully to keep up with Peralta's memories.If you crave excitement and adventure, don't bother with 'Revenge of the Sith'; look instead to 'Lords of Dogtown,' about as electric -- yet fulfilling and relaxing -- an experience as this summer will likely offer.
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originally posted: 01/27/07 15:36:16