Monday, June 02, 2008

Lords of Dogtown

2005, US, directed by Catherine Hardwicke

This chronicle of the birth of surf-influenced skateboard culture, with Stacy Peralta's script loosely based on his own teenage years, frequently has a wistful tone that's reminiscent of Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous (coincidentally, Michael Angarano, the actor who plays the younger version of that film's lead character, has a key role here). The Southern Californian setting of this film is more hard-scrabble than that of Crowe's tale, with many of the early skateboard stars from pretty blue-collar backgrounds (added to which the characters - especially Emile Hirsch's Jay - affect a certain street toughness) but ultimately they both deal with the painful confrontation between youthful dreams and the hard sell of capitalism.

The film is very effective as a chronicle of a very specific time and place, and director Catherine Hardwicke captures the male-centric bonding of the surfer/skater crew without forgetting that many of their rougher edges are grounded in youthful cockiness - and the heedless thrill of teenage boys who've suddenly figured out a way to impress girls. Set against the backdrop of Venice, California, the skateboarders' summer does indeed seem endless - one year fades into the next seamlessly, and the characters themselves are absolutely aware of their unique ability to avoid conventional life.

The characters are often painted with a fairly broad brush, particularly in terms of how the central trio deal with the arrival of hangers-on, sponsors, and cash, while the film's episodic structure occasionally means that there are great leaps in terms of narrative progress, but the lead actors are strong enough to use the raw materials to create what are ultimately credibly rounded portraits of young people not quite ready for the compromises inherent in a world controlled by adults.
Skip, played by Heath Ledger, is the main adult presence through the film - mothers and fathers are either absent of distracted by the need to make ends meet - and his attempts to preserve his own youth and idealism, even as he runs a surfer/skateboard business, are poignant but also self-destructive, particularly when he can't compete with the deep pockets of the corporations. It's not hard to see in Skip the older, strung-out version of Sean Penn's Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a stoner who has smoked one joint too many and seen the world pass him by (I'm not sure why the filmmakers felt the need to give Ledger a distracting set of bad teeth, unless the character was inspired by someone with equally strange dental work).

The camerawork is exceptional, drawing the viewer into the skating action to a remarkable degree, following the characters through emptied-out swimming pools during drought-ridden LA summers, or swooping between cars, and at other times capturing the wild, joyful energy of kids willing to brush with the law while in search of a thrilling place to spin their wheels. Hardwicke also pays careful attention to her colour palette, capturing the strange lighting of the nighttime city as well as the intense sunlit days, with the swimming pools burning the screen with vivid blues.

1 comment:

Buck Theorem said...

I'd say "Lords of Dogtown" feels like a conventional Larry Clark or Harmony Korine youth flick: more grungy and freewheeling than Cameron Crowe, but definitely with that whimsy you note.

True the cast flesh out not necessarily likeable but wholey believable characters, but it's not quite a "Boogie Nights" for skaters, which is a shame; maybe more like "Big Wednesday".

Heath Ledger's performance is also quite unforgettable.


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States