Heath Ledger’s Skip Engblom isn’t the main character in Catherine Hardwicke’s Lords of Dogtown, yet Ledger makes Skip, the hostile, irascible owner of a surf and skateboarding shop in Venice, California, circa the mid-1970s, impossible to forget.
Skip is the kind of barking dog who expects a potential customer to pay in order to browse, and in the movie’s first half, Ledger seemingly ascends to scenery-chewing heaven. Skip derives immense gratification from ridiculing the teenaged boys who’ve made his store, Zephyr, their hangout. A self-styled Svengali, he corrals them into forming the Zephyr skateboarding team; when the “Z-boys” dazzle the judges and earn high marks at their first competition, their curmudgeonly sponsor eases up a bit. “Skip called me bro’!” one skater exclaims excitedly. It means acceptance at last.
Ledger, who’s 26, about the same age the real life Engblom was during the years the film covers, looks as if he could be 40. At a party to celebrate the Z-boys’ photo spread in a national magazine, the hardscrabble Skip parades around in sequined denim. He’s so proud that his version of stewardship has coasted them close to the big time, yet Skip intrinsically knows that these golden youth (all sporting peroxide blond long hair, as does he) are his only claim to fame—the thin line that keeps him from being a complete loser.
It’s tough for an actor to make an aggressive, cartoonish character sympathetic, and I think Ledger pulls it off. There’s a fantastic scene of Skip buffing a surfboard, singing along as the radio plays Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May.” Suddenly he stops singing; he hears something of himself in the lyrics, and the identification is momentarily too much.
Stacy Peralta, who directed the 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, wrote the screenplay for this film; it’s loosely based on his days in the Southern California sun, surfing the waves at Pacific Ocean Park and, with his friends Tony Alva and Jay Adams, re-inventing what skateboarding meant as a sport. Peralta’s script isn’t long on story or character development. There’s atmosphere in abundance, however, and that perfectly suits the director’s visual style. Catherine Hardwicke is no ordinary storyteller—she’s a creator of mythology. She takes Peralta’s hazy half-remembrances and charges them with epic poetry. Working with a slightly underwritten script frees her to express in images what words might render mawkish: the skateboarders’ need for transcendence from the poverty of Dogtown, the “ghetto by the sea” that they call Venice.
Reunited with Elliot Davis, the cinematographer from her previous film Thirteen, Hardwicke gives Lords of Dogtown a deliberately washed out look that revives a 1970s ethos. When the Z-boys practice vertical skating within empty swimming pools, Davis’s lens captures the sunlight on the pale blue interior. The paint of the drained pools nearly matches the sky in hue, and in some shots of leaps and curves through air, the concepts of above and below disappear. Eventually, Jay (a brooding, internalized performance by Emile Hirsch) moves up to skating the circumference of concrete cylinders, and the sense of aerial motion, of falling yet not falling, that the filmmakers attain seems inadequately articulated by any word other than, “Wow!”
Though the dialogue seldom rises past, “Dude, this is way too gnarly!” that’s exactly what these dudes would say to one another. The young actors are all first-rate, especially John Robinson as the somewhat saintly stand-in for Peralta. Michael Angarano is tremendously appealing as Sid, a physically frail youth determined nonetheless to keep up with the rest of the Zephyr team. He has a great, comic, loss of innocence scene when, as the available women come to pounce on the Z-boys, he nervously asks one, “What’s happening?” and she boldly asserts, “You’re happening, Sid.” As Tony Alva, a beautiful blond Mexican with corkscrew curls and a well-muscled physique, Victor Rasuk takes the easy on the eyes trophy, hands down.
Both vastly entertaining and elegiacally gritty, the movie hits the mark when a fashion photographer orders the boys to “Gimme the street thing!” In charting the moment when commerce validates a subculture, Hardwicke and Peralta also see the sport become less than for sport’s sake. – NPT
May 19, 2005