It's the archival footage that makes Dogtown, which as a documentary has all the benefits and faults of a project crafted from the inside out. Since he grew up with these guys—and the lone girl, Peggy Oki—Peralta doesn't have to feign intimacy with his subjects. Neither, though, can he bring himself to push anyone, including himself, into difficult terrain. When Peralta, one of the most financially successful Z-Boys, interviews Jay Adams, one of those who slid hardest, there's too much left unsaid between them, with suggestions of resentment in their every pause. Adams seems reticent to honestly speak his mind, not just about his own peccadilloes (he's currently on furlough for a Hawaiian drug conviction), but about the commercialization of Dogtown, while Peralta himself comes off as too defensive about his later success. Peralta didn't "sell out," but by dodging what really happened to his friends after the sponsors came calling, and by avoiding the larger issue of how big business (such as the film's own financier) peddles youth culture, he keeps the film needlessly and disappointingly soft. Peralta has said in interviews that Vans was hands-off when it came to content, and maybe that's true. The company is nonetheless going the marketing distance by, among other things, offering an "exclusive Dogtown collection" of hats, sneakers and the like.
The Z-Boys, some of whom came from working-class, even impoverished, households, eagerly tied their Vans laces back in the 1970s; later, Adams and Tony Alva (who went on to found his own skateboard company) even designed some of the company's sneakers. To begrudge these kids a profit off their own talent would have been pointless. As one after another says in the documentary, everyone else was making money off them, so why shouldn't they? If only one after another of these guys, all now solidly middle-aged, didn't also keep insisting on just how "revolutionary" they were back in the day, a claim that after a while sounds a little too much like a Big Chill–style apology for the lives they eventually led. Anyway, who cares about these old guys? It's the Z-Boys and little Peggy who matter. To look at the film's archival imagery—much of it shot by Craig Stecyk and his protégé, Glen E. Friedman—and see these heartbreaking kids with their graceful limbs, flying hair and ferocious will is to see the dream of Los Angeles embodied, if only for a flash. A Larry Clark could have made a masterpiece out of all this beautiful young flesh, but Peralta, with Stecyk and Friedman's help, hasn't done badly by the Z-Boys. He hasn't done badly by himself, either. After last year's Sundance, he signed on to direct a film of Allan C. Weisbecker's memoir In Search of Captain Zero: A Surfer's Road Trip Beyond the End of the Road, which will star none other than Dogtown's narrator, the Buddha of the board, the eternal Spicoli . . . Sean Penn.