Movie Review: Lords of Dogtown
By Allison Benedikt, Chicago Tribune Staff Writer
Stacy Peralta, this is your life.
Peralta, former skateboarding revolutionary and current burgeoning filmmaker, has spun the story of his teen years into quite the film career. First came "Dogtown and Z-Boys," a fantastic documentary about the pioneering 1970s Zephyr skating team, of which he was a member. Then, "Riding Giants," another top-notch doc, this one about the history of surfing, the sport that spawned the Zephyrs.
But "quit while you're ahead" is clearly not Peralta's motto, and now he's gone and done it: writing a dramatized, sensationalized version of "Z-Boys" and turning the reigns over to sophomore director Catherine Hardwicke, she of "Thirteen" fame.
"Lords of Dogtown" is based on a real-life story about rough-and-tumble kids in '70s Venice, Calif. - ghetto by the sea - and their rise from wannabe surfers to freestyle skate gods. Peralta focuses on three groundbreakers: Tony Alva, Jay Adams and Stacy Peralta (if he does say so himself), all best friends and fierce competitors.
In shorthand, Alva (Victor Rasuk) is the rock star, Adams (Emile Hirsch) the rebel and Peralta (John Robins) the wallflower. Together - with a little tough love from surfer, mentor and woozy Zephyr Skate Shop owner Skip (Heath Ledger more on that later) - they turn skating on its head, taking it from slick roller rinks to the concrete jungle, creating their own physical vocabulary in the alleys and junkyards of Venice. The advent of urethane wheels and a drought brings even greater creative freedom, with the boys jumping fences to skate the empty swimming pools of the rich and oblivious, soaring from end to end.
The skating in "Z-Boys" mesmerized, and Hardwicke, a Venice resident, and her cinematographer, Elliot Davis, re-create it well here, capturing the beauty of a long, clear hill, the friction of a sharp turn and the promise of a drained pool.
It's drama enough, really, but then there's this: Alva's never good enough for his father, Adams' single mom is a bum, and Peralta can't keep his girl - Tony's sister Kathy - satisfied. And don't forget Sid, the sickly fourth wheel whose failing health ensures a maudlin finale.
The look and feel here is classic Hardwicke: gritty and dark, so as to fool you into thinking this film is serious business. "Thirteen," that heavy-handed story about the rough life of teenage girls, was famously co-written in loose autobiographical terms by teenager Nikki Reed (who plays Kathy here), and "Dogtown" is by a guy who really, really, really wants to be sure we know he and his pals are legendary. (He's got a whole cottage industry riding on it.) Both suffer from elevated importance and a lack of perspective, with the storyteller too embedded in the story, too attached to its grandeur to ever identify the baloney. (Whip-It huffers and Dogtown disciples may disagree.)
Hirsch's brooding performance is the only one to live up to Hardwicke's serious vision, with a seamless devolution from hyper, aggressive street kid to angry, withdrawn gangster to bitter, lost soul. Then there's Ledger, who at times seems out of place because he's actually having fun, creating a character part Jim Morrison, part Jim Henson.
Skip's got the whole failed-virtuoso thing going on, a nice match to Adams in the end, and Ledger finds both his heart and his proclivity for self-destruction. He also gives Skip a very distinct physical presence, always in scattered, off-kilter, could-be-loaded motion. But, well, umm he does this lip thing, this top-lip thing where he curls it under to expose his upper teeth and gums as he rambles on. It's weird. And distracting. And a little endearing. But mostly distracting.
In the end, "Dogtown" is more about ego than skating, with Skip bruised as his star skaters leave him for the bright lights of big business, Adams stunted and Alva bloated by money and fame. "The dude's competing with the sun for the center of the universe," Peralta says of Alva at one point. He oughta know.
"Lords of Dogtown"
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke; written by Stacy Peralta; photographed by Elliot Davis; edited by Nancy Richardson; production designed by Chris Gorak; music by Mark Mothersbaugh; produced by John Linson. A Tri-Star Pictures release; opens Friday, June 3. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: PG-13 (drug and alcohol content, sexuality, violence, language and reckless behavior - all involving teens).
Stacy Peralta - John Robins
Jay Adams - Emile Hirsch
Tony Alva - Victor Rasuk
Skip - Heath Ledger
Kathy Alva - Nikki Reed