Despite having teenage wastoids who spend all their time skateboarding as its protagonists, “Lords of Dogtown” is a Real Movie. It has themes and character arcs and nothing but mid-’70s rock on the soundtrack. What could have been only a pandering skate-ploitation flick instead treats its true story with maturity and skill.
This may be disappointing to skaters who were hoping for two hours of skate heroes executing gnarly stunts while scantily clad babes look on admiringly. There is good skate footage here, but the focus is on the boys more than on their actual on-the-ramp exploits.
It is spawned from skating legend Stacy Peralta’s 2002 documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” which told of how he and his friends basically invented modern skateboarding in 1975. Peralta wrote the screenplay to this mildly fictionalized version (“inspired by a true story,” it says); fellow Sundance alum Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen”) directs it in what has become, in two films, her distinctive style: gritty film stock, hand-held cameras, and an unswerving focus on the angst of teen-hood.
“Dogtown” is a nickname for Venice, Calif., the seaside town that is home, in 1975, to a handful of high school students who live to surf. We quickly focus in on four of them: Stacy (John Robinson), the responsible, job-holding one, with long, pretty hair; Jay (Emile Hirsch), reckless and dangerous and possessed of an insane mother; Sid (Michael Angarano), a rich kid with an inner-ear problem that gives him poor balance (a liability for a surfer, you’ll admit); and Tony (Victor Rasuk), a Mexican-American boy whose father pushes him to excellence, hoping he will rise above their meager surroundings.
These four know the best waves are near the dilapidated old pier at Pacific Ocean Park; however, that spot is closely guarded by older surfers who make our heroes wait their turn. While they wait, they casually (and, unbeknownst to themselves, expertly) engage in surfing’s cousin, skateboarding.
The local surf shop, Zephyr, is run by Skip (a very odd Heath Ledger, channeling Val Kilmer), a surf bum who opens the store only when the waves aren’t coming. He has but an ounce of business sense, but it’s enough to realize he could make a fortune designing, building and selling skateboards. After all, only kids on the coasts can surf, but anyone can skate.
Skip forms a skateboarding team of the local kids, and their appearance at a regional tournament is revelatory. The other participants’ routines are reminiscent of figure skating — staid, demure and unthrilling. The Zephyr kids are used to skating on the streets, though, leaping over trash cans and careening down staircases. They bring a new flavor to the stodgy skateboarding tournament, something like if Jimi Hendrix had crashed a classical guitar recital.
The California drought leads to the next development in the evolution of skating. Neighborhood swimming pools are empty, and Jay and the gang are bored. If you have seen the modern “X-Game” style of skating, here is its genesis: empty pools and listless teenagers. The sport is forever changed, and the boys are on their way to success on the tournament circuit.
The movie cannot avoid the trappings of all movies like this: the pressures of fame, the tested loyalties, the growing arrogance of this character, the self-destruction of that character, and so forth. But it handles well the four boys’ distinct personalities and trajectories, juggling them all so as not to neglect anyone too severely (though I do think we could have seen more of Tony’s rise and fall as a skating superstar).
That said, the movie’s strong points do not come in its words. Peralta has shown his worth as a documentarian (see his “Riding Giants,” also), but his knack for writing dialogue has not yet emerged. Most of what the boys say to each other is predictable and ordinary, sounding like the things movie characters usually say to each other.
The characters emerge as strong types, though, thanks to four winning performances. At the center, and emerging as the film’s de facto main character, is Emile Hirsch, who plays Jay as the most directionless of these directionless boys, the most wantonly rebellious. His cycle of recklessness and misery feels exactly like what most teenage boys go through — amplified beyond what most of us experience, but having the same causes and symptoms. Hirsch, who has never failed to be interesting in his various unusual roles (“The Mudge Boy,” “The Girl Next Door”), is, as they say One to Watch.
The movie is not as much fun to watch as the documentary was — ironic, given that surely the only reason for making it was to draw in the crowd that wouldn’t be caught dead watching a documentary — but it captures the boys and their moods well enough to make it a fruitful character study. I suspect those who will enjoy it most are people who wouldn’t be caught dead watching a skateboard movie.
B (1 hr., 47 min.; )