Lords of Dogtown is the true story of the birth of modern skateboarding culture. It takes place in 1975 where a surf shop owner named Skip Engblom (Heath Ledger) builds custom-made boards. Most of the local surfers ride waves at a nearby amusement park pier that has long since closed down. Skip realizes that skateboards are similar to surfboards, except that the rider doesn’t need to wait for a wave to use one. He decides to put together Team Zephyr (named after his store), a competitive group of local teenagers who have mastered the little contraptions.
The key team members are Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), and Stacy Peralta (John Robinson). The kids are heavily influenced by surf culture, and they notice that a lot of the surfers touch the waves as they glide across them. In an effort to copy that style, they begin riding low on their skateboards, touching the concrete whenever possible. This marks a distinct departure from conventional skateboarding, which they discover upon entering their first competition. The judges barely know how to score these unusual moves, but the crowd eats it up.
That summer, a severe draught hits California, forcing residents to drain their pools. Tony notices that the shape of many of these pools resemble waves. Team Zephyr members suddenly begin breaking into people’s back yards and skating inside the empty pools. Before long, they realize that the slope of the pool walls allow them to get slightly airborne. This represents yet another advancement in the way the boards are maneuvered. A magazine journalist documents and photographs the techniques of Team Zephyr. Before long, the entire competitive sport has changed to incorporate this new style. The boys become stars and are recruited for endorsements by bigger skateboard companies. Rivalries abound as the former teammates leave Skip’s team one by one and suddenly become competitors. Although the members couldn’t hold it together, they changed the sport of skateboarding forever.
This story was told before in the superb documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, which was directed by the real Stacy Peralta. (Peralta also penned the screenplay for this new film.) The fictional account makes for a nice companion piece to the documentary. Whereas Dogtown and Z-Boys focused on how and why skateboarding was changed by Team Zephyr, Lords of Dogtown focuses more on the personal lives of its members. We see Peralta’s attempts to gain access into Skip Engblom’s inner circle, Tony Alva’s brilliance waiting to be ignited, and Jay Adams’ troubled home life, which may have fueled his daring acts on a skateboard. Rebecca DeMornay plays Jay’s mom, a surfer type who seems to be fried from excess drug use. Jay views skating as an escape, but when his career doesn’t quite work out as planned, his less-than-secure upbringing acts as a vacuum to suck him back into trouble.
Lords of Dogtown was directed by Catherine Hardwicke; she also made the teen drama Thirteen and has a strong grasp on rebellious youth. Hardwicke beautifully captures what life must have been like in this somewhat impoverished area in the 70’s, where the ability to ride a skateboard represented total freedom. She also captures some great skateboarding scenes. At times, the director puts a camera on the boards themselves, allowing us a view of what it would be like to ride across a sloping pool wall. There’s great authenticity in the picture thanks to Hardwicke’s atmospheric direction and Peralta’s first-hand account of the era.
(Interesting side note: Lords of Dogtown was once intended to be the directorial debut of limp bizkit front man Fred Durst.)
The performances of the young actors are all spot-on, and Heath Ledger gives an especially risky turn. He uses a trick voice and adopts an almost drunken swagger to play Skip Engblom. Somehow it works. Ledger must have sensed that Engblom would have to seem larger than life in order for audiences to understand how he motivated Team Zephyr to reach their fullest potential.
Of the two films on this subject, I like both but prefer Dogtown and Z-Boys a little more because it so richly details what was essentially an accidental revolution. Lords of Dogtown has to condense some of the facts in order to work as fiction. Even so, it’s interesting to get a more personal glimpse at Alva, Peralta, Adams, and Engblom. This is, at its core, a really fascinating story even if you aren’t a skateboarding freak. The strength of Lords of Dogtown is that it brings a human element to a piece of modern athletic history. It also does a beautiful job showing us how a bunch of bored kids can completely change the face of a sport.
( out of four)
Lords of Dogtown is rated PG-13 for drug and alcohol content, sexuality, violence, language and reckless behavior - all involving teens. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.
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