Lords of Dogtown

Movie Information

Genre: Skateboarding Biopic
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Starring: Emile Hirsch, John Robinson, Victor Rasuk, Heath Ledger, Rebecca De Mornay, Michael Angarano
Rated: PG-13

Having quite enough trouble staying upright without putting wheels under me, I freely confess that I have never been on a skateboard in my life. There was an unfortunate incident involving a pair of plastic roller skates when I was about 7, but that was enough to convince me that such pursuits come under the heading of novel ways to commit suicide.

While my interest in skateboarding is somewhat less than nonexistent, I think it’s possible that someone could make a movie on the topic that connects with me on some level. I approached Lords of Dogtown with that in mind, but it didn’t help. The movie failed, on every level, to answer the one key question: Why should I care about these boys?

And it’s hard to imagine that this Hollywoodized film of their story, which was already covered in the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, will appeal to anyone not already hooked on the sport of skateboarding. Oh, sure, the first few moments of clever low-angle traveling shots — the sunlight glinting through the skateboard wheels as if to impart a kind of religious, ethereal glow — are effective enough in terms of overheated imagery, but the amusement value of this sort of thing is severely limited.

After that, the movie’s composed of mere repetition and the bleached-blond eye-candy of Emile Hirsch, John Robinson and Victor Rasuk (not to mention their stunt doubles).

Part of the problem stems from Stacy Peralta’s script. Peralta was (and in his mind, apparently still is) one of the Z-Boys, a group off skateboard pioneers. It was he who made Dogtown and the Z-Boys, and here he returns to the same topic in narrative form. It’s not just a case of going to the well once too often, it’s a case of going to a well you’re too familiar with and not realizing that the rest of the world isn’t.

What Peralta ended up with is less a coherent portrait of the Z-Boys than a valentine to a time he’s in love with (and seemingly mired in), and the most shameless love letter any writer ever penned to himself. The version of Peralta that’s presented in the film (played by Jonathan Robinson, Elephant) is embarrassing in its gooey-eyed wonderment at this sensitive soul. His main buddies, Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk, Raising Victor Vargas) and Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch, The Girl Next Door), are sketched in as troubled and/or damaged youths with little thought for anything other than having a good time. Not so Peralta: He has principles, morals and ethics. He has his head on his shoulders. And why not? He wrote the movie.

Beyond that, the movie he wrote is much too much like 8 Mile-Lite — right down to stoned-out hippie mom Philaine Adams (Rebecca De Mornay) standing in for Kim Basinger’s “trailer trash” maternalism. Just change rap to skateboarding and alter the lingo so that “man” and “dude” permeate each sentence rather than “dog” and “my bad,” and you have pretty much the same movie.

The biggest problem, however, is that Lords of Dogtown never makes a compelling case (or any case at all) that there’s anything deeper at work here than a handful of disaffected kids whose lives revolve around getting stoned and riding skateboards. I went into the movie knowing that much about them; I came out pretty much the same way. If there was anything more to them, the movie failed to get at it.

Like the sport it attempts to lionize, the movie simply glides along the surface, offering no insight into anyone or anything. As presented, these are just three shallow dudes who engage in a lot of reckless behavior that we’re supposed to admire because it’s anti-authoritarian or youthfully exuberant.

Well, I like anti-authoritarian films just fine, but it helps if the film has some idea of what it’s against. This one doesn’t. It’s merely against the status quo because it’s supposed to be. The sad thing here is that there is a compelling story to be told about the era that starts in 1975, because, let’s face it, that’s the real end of the 1960s (which didn’t really become the ’60s as we think of them until 1964 or so) — and the beginning of a less-focused time. In many ways, it’s the birth of that time that Lords depicts, but the film isn’t savvy enough, or perhaps honest enough, to deal with that aspect.

As for youthful exuberance, there’s a very thin line between high spirits and behavior that’s merely obnoxious. Lords crosses that line almost constantly.

Even as a tribute to the time it portrays, the movie’s a bit wanting. The pop soundtrack choices are generally predictable and simplistic, with very few of the songs adding much to either the tone of the film or the sense of the era. The most notable exception to this is a truly evocative use of “Wish You Were Here.” Unfortunately, the version used is not the Pink Floyd original, but a cover by the indie group Sparklehorse — a version that not only brings nothing new to the table, it pulls the viewer right out of the film’s era.

Perhaps that’s not all that surprising, since no one thought to tell the filmmakers that the inch-and-a-half of boxer shorts exposed above the waistline look was really just not in vogue in 1975. Rated PG-13 for drug and alcohol content, sexuality, violence, language and reckless behavior — all involving teens.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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