The young Skip Engblom, co-founder of Santa Monica's Zephyr surf shop, is glimpsed only fleetingly in the archival material of Stacy Peralta's 2002 documentary DogtownandZ-Boys.Most of the time, he's represented by the 54-year-old version of Engblom interviewed by Peralta for the film. Now his story is part of a Hollywood dramatization, LordsofDogtown,and with it the 20-something surfer has been resurrected in the form of Heath Ledger, who embodies the role with psychedelic grandeur. Wreathed in beaded necklaces and exotic print shirts, stringy blond hair draping his head, Ledger moves with a rolling swagger that suggests he's riding the contours of a wave even when he's on dry land, and his words leak out of his mouth like marbles soaked in molasses. It's the sort of full-bodied character turn in which one loses sight of the actor and remembers only the character's aggressively eccentric personality. Unfortunately, whenever Ledger isn't onscreen, LordsofDogtowntakes a spill.
In the early 1970s, on the working-class streets of south Santa Monica and Venice, a group of tough, mostly lower-middle-class kids (Peralta among them) steeped in the neighborhood's surf culture came together under Engblom's tutelage to form a competitive skateboarding team named after the surf shop. This occured at the very moment when skateboard manufacturing was undergoing a critical development, the replacement of clay wheels with urethane ones, leading to a new freedom in maneuverability and allowing these self-styled Z-Boys to re-create on dry land the low, sinuous movements they'd earlier perfected on their surfboards. The photographs taken in those years by artist Craig Stecyk and printed in the pages of Skateboardermagazine captured feats of skating wizardry that seemed to defy the laws of physics.
Real life doesn't so easily remain fixed in one historical moment, and, in the case of the Z-Boys, that meant the Olympian iconography of Stecyk giving way to the turbulence of ordinary lives inflated by fame and pricked by the hand of fate. For every Peralta (played here by John Robinson)—who parlayed his early Zephyr success into a hugely successful career as a pro skater and as the co-founder of his own skateboard-manufacturing empire—there was a Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), whose dalliance with fame would lead to years of substance abuse and convictions on a variety of assault and drug charges. But the story of the Z-Boys is not just that of delinquent teens given some momentary direction in their lives. It's also about skateboarding's evolution from renegade diversion to multibillion-dollar global industry, and of rough-and-tumble Dogtown's no-less-dramatic transformation into bourgeois Ocean Park. Despite his proximity to the material, Peralta's film was surprisingly candid about all those things, sometimes opting for legend over fact, but just as often exposing the mortal flipside of the Z-Boys' Peter Pan fantasies. So it's all the more surprising that LordsofDogtown,which was scripted by Peralta, seems a movie made by an entirely different person—by someone looking at the material from the outside in, as though Peralta fed his own experience into some screenwriting software program that homogenized everything into threadbare clichs about the innocence of youth and the pressures of success. Add in gratuitous rock-music montage sequences and a sentimental climactic scene in which estranged friends, reunited by tragedy, suddenly kiss and hop back on their skateboards, and it's possible to leave the theater having gleaned no more in the way of insight than that afforded by Stecyk's static photographs—and arguably, quite a bit less.
That said, LordsofDogtowncertainly looks right. The director, Catherine Hardwicke (who began her career as a production designer), injects boozy, dilapidated-beachfront atmosphere into each frame, and has a terrific eye for the sights and sounds of a bygone Santa Monica (not least of which is the elaborate re-creation of the shuttered Pacific Ocean Park, its post-apocalyptic ramparts jutting up from the ocean in the background of many scenes). As in her debut feature, Thirteen,Hardwicke also shows a knack for getting young actors to behave like real teenagers rather than Dawson'sCreekclones. In Dogtown,one memorable scene, in which Adams courts the sister of fellow Z-Boy Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk) by performing a dance to the Ohio Players' version of "Fire," erupts with a wild adolescent carnality. But like most of what works in Dogtown,this is an isolated moment that doesn't make a meaningful connection with anything else around it. The movie is distant and cold when it should be up-close and personal, a too-smooth concrete surface unblemished by the tread marks of human emotion.
LORDS OF DOGTOWN WAS DIRECTED BY CATHERINE HARDWICKE; WRITTEN BY STACY PERALTA; PRODUCED BY JOHN LINSON. NOW PLAYING COUNTYWIDE.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.