Lords of Dogtown (2005, Catherine Hardwicke)
“Lords of Dogtown” is the perfect summer movie. The story is archetypal: three guys from the wrong side of the tracks create a new style of skateboarding and achieve fame and fortune, and realize what’s important. Sounds like a typical summer flick, with the cute boys and the bikinis that its California setting would imply.
But “Dogtown” was written by Stacy Peralta, one of the three skateboarders the film follows, and the filmmaker behind the wildly successful documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys on the same subject. It was directed by Catherine Hardwicke, the woman behind the transporting “Thirteen,” and shot by the cameraman responsible for “Thirteen’s” gritty realism. And it stars three guys who are practically unknown–indie actors cast for their talent and similarity to their characters rather than their ability to pack a theater.
Jay Adams, Tony Alva, and Stacy Peralta were the id, ego, and superego of skateboarding. Peralta (John Robinson, whom you should know from “Elephant”), the thoughtful one, works hard on every trick and was originally excluded from the Zephyr skate team because, as mentor Skip Engblom (Heath Ledger, the biggest marquee name in the flick) says, “You’re not a pirate!” Adams (Emile Hirsch), the purest talent of the bunch, and the live wire, is capable of sudden violence and visceral reactions that at times scare everyone around him, but is motivated by a desire to take care of his loopy mom (Rebecca De Mornay, nearly unrecognizable in a leathery tan and a lined, makeup-free face). Alva (Victor Rasuk, of “Raising Victor Vargas”) is the synthesis of skill and hard work, master of his game and the first one to realize the benefits of fame, and to be changed by it.
Robinson plays a sweet, quiet Peralta with understated emotion, much like his performance in “Elephant.” You can see the hurt and the happiness, but certainly not to the extremes that show up in Rasuk’s portrayal of Tony Alva, all bravado and swagger and attitude, but with enough anger channeled into drive to get better and better to maintain at least some sympathy for the character. Nikki Reed, also of “Thirteen,” shows up as Alva’s sister to create a fairly useless love triangle, which does serve to show to what level the boys will compete with each other. Heath Ledger plays Engblom, founder of the Zephyr shop and the skate team that bears its name, as the personification of Dogtown itself, wasted and aimless, but content and authentic–the conscience of the picture, but a compelling character as well. Michael Angarano is winning as Sid, the token rich kid slumming with the Dogtown boys, and Johnny Knoxville appears as a sleazoid promoter who’s the only cartoonish note in the film.
But the film really belongs to Emile Hirsch as Jay Adams. He’s pure instinct on a skateboard, constantly pushing the envelope and trying tricks no one’s ever seen before that sabotage his commercial success because he’s willing to wipe out. Emotionally, he’s an accident waiting to happen, but he becomes the one everyone else is drawn to. He is truly the one who didn’t sell out, and the one who hurt himself rather than anyone else, and Hirsch gives a great performance in a part that could easily become melodramatic. The best scene in the film juxtaposes Jay Adams skating with a few friends inside a giant section of cement pipe while Peralta and Alva, in their brand-name uniforms, compete with each other. The light is behind Adams as he goes higher and higher, nearly upside-down in his quest, not for the money, but simply for the freedom, the exhilaration.
Hardwicke and cinematographer Elliot Davis have an eye for the neighborhoods of Venice, particularly the beach and rotting boardwalk. The film is shot in the same rough-edged, surreal grey-tinged color as “Thirteen,” “Dogtown” is both beautiful and decaying, and you both love and want to escape it. The boys learned to skate for the film, and did many of their own stunts, and in fact the real Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta stunt doubled as themselves in a few scenes. It’s nearly impossible to tell which moves were done by the actors and which a double. Mark Mothersbaugh’s music and the classic rock soundtrack are note-perfect as well.
Can I gush any more? Come on. Go see it. Hardwicke and her crew have created a Hollywood film worthy of the Dogtown documentary, retaining the feel of an indie film, the punk attitude of the time and the scene, but putting enough gloss on it to make it a summer blockbuster.