Title: Lords of Dogtown
Genre: Biography, Drama, Sports
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Screenwriters: Stacy Peralta
Starring: Heath Ledger, Emile Hirsch, Victor Rasuk
It’s a dangerous business, writing a movie about your life. Writing one for Hollywood is even more dangerous. It’s awfully easy to flatter and self-aggrandize when trying to mythologize oneself. For proof, you need go no further than Denzel Washington’s Antwone Fisher, which was written by the title character as a tedious, inspirational autopraiseography. It’s a dangerous business.
Lords of Dogtown, a somewhat fictionalized account of the rise of professional skateboarding among a group of now legendary young guys in Venice, California, was written by one of those legends: Stacy Peralta, who also directed a popular documentary on the same subject called Dogtown and Z-Boys. And indeed, the movie does fall into some of the traps you might expect. Young Peralta, played here by John Robinson (Elephant), is easily the most flawless and saintly of the characters the film presents, by turns noble, unassuming and betrayed. If you know the identity of the screenwriter, it does become somewhat uncomfortable to watch.
Fortunately, the similarities to Antwone Fisher end there. For if Lords of Dogtown is plagued by a couple of moments that are tacky or classless, they are easily overshadowed by its big heart, offbeat manner, and a couple of displays of virtuoso filmmaking — including, yes, screenwriting. Considering that the only previous major skateboarding movie, aside from Dogtown and Z-Boys which is a little-seen documentary, has been the utterly dire Grind, enthusiasts of the sport should be particularly grateful for this effort. The rest of us should just savor its isolated but considerable pleasures.
The film’s visual style should be familiar to anyone who saw Thirteen, Catherine Hardwicke’s acclaimed debut. It’s a nice break from the gloss and sheen of most mainstream films, and I was reminded, on a very superficial level, of Paul Greengrass’ work in The Bourne Supremacy, though the look of Lords of Dogtown is less likely to confuse and more apt to be mistaken for an “edgy” music video. But then, that’s more negative than I want to sound; it’s a good look for the film, gritty and immediate (if somewhat stereotypically so), adding some tension to what may otherwise have just been mundane.
I mentioned that the film has moments of greatness, and indeed there are a few shots and scenes that transcend the material and speak to Hardwicke’s talent. The movie’s perhaps unintended centerpiece is an extended party sequence roughly halfway through the film. It begins amusingly and ends powerfully, as Hardwicke and the screenplay effortlessly juggle and develop a half-dozen storylines, building momentum as the characters slowly but inevitably head for a major meltdown. The fundamental formulas of the plot and the relationships between the players underlie everything — we know that cocky hotshot Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk) and fiery outsider Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch) must part ways explosively, that loyalties will be tested in familiar ways, that there will be a pivotal competition in which some will get their comeuppance — but for fifteen minutes or so they fade into the background and the screen practically burns with possibility. We even begin to entertain the thought that we don’t know what’s going to happen next. It’s a marvelous scene.
Much like the rest of Lords of Dogtown, the performances have a way of hitting and missing in spots but adding up nicely at the end of the day. I was not initially sold on Emile Hirsch’s supposed badass (though I was willing to allow for the possibility that he was playing someone who was not a badass but was trying to be one), but by the end of the film both Hirsch and his character won me over with sheer persistance. Victor Rasuk is perhaps a touch overeager (there is one line delivery in particular — “We’re going to be the first to ride it!” — that’s a horrid miscalculation), but then so is Tony Alva. And if those two fall in the middle, John Robinson and Heath Ledger are on opposite ends, with the former handling the tricky Peralta role with dignity and class, diffusing some of the screenplay’s self-importance, and the latter resembling nothing so much as Ledger playing Johnny Depp playing a famous skateboard pioneer. Some have suggested Val Kilmer, but I think Depp is closer.
This film won’t be the easiest sell on the mass market, but it won me over: it’s just unconventional enough, it has a heart and a rhythm, and it strives for greatness. Hardwicke and Peralta tread familiar ground at their own pace and on their own path.