The many times I watched the trailer for "The Lords of Dogtown", I cringed at the sight of Heath Ledger. The images of him as a drugged out former hippy recruiting a bunch of kids to ride skateboards caused me to start grinding my teeth. The images hinted at one over the top performance, and not in a good way.
"The Lords of Dogtown" is a fictionalized retelling of the same material covered in a documentary released last year called "Dogtown and Z-Boys". The documentary was written and produced by Stacy Peralta, one of the "Z-Boys", a group of young kids who rode skateboards for Zephyr and created the whole skateboard craze. Zephyr was sponsored by Skip Englom, a local surf shop owner in Venice who realized that this could be the next big thing. The success of the documentary prompted Peralta to write the screenplay for "Lords of Dogtown" and the film was made with Catherine Hardwicke ("thirteen") at the helm.
Skip Englom (Heath Ledger) and his surf shop employees rule the area under the old Venice pier. Stacy (John Robinson, "Elephant"), Jay (Emile Hirsch, "Imaginary Heroes") and Tony (Victor Rasuk, "Raising Victor Vargas") are the next generation and they want to get out there and surf as well. One day, someone shows Skip the new thing in skateboard wheels (neoprene, "made from oil") and his mind starts clicking. He has everyone practice and soon everyone is a member of the Zephyr team. Everyone except for Stacy. Stacy has a job and can't attend all of the practice sessions. During the first competition, Stacy enters as an independent and proves to Skip that he should be a member of the team. As the skaters become more and more well-known, fame threatens to rip the friends and the team apart.
Well, Heath Ledger's performance is way over the top. But in the context of the film's story, it is more acceptable. I didn't say it was believable, because it isn't, just more acceptable. I didn't feel like someone was scratching their fingernails across a blackboard, as I expected. Ledger plays Skip Englom and seems to be channeling the spirit of Jim Morrison as played by Val Kilmer. Drunk or high in every scene, he rants and raves or plays a drugged out hippie. I know the character is based on a real person, but because the film is fictionalized, perhaps it could have been toned down a little. What the performance lacks is any connection to the story. At one point, Skip has a fight with his employees because they aren't building skateboards fast enough. Why? Before, he seemed blissfully unaware of the need to make money. Now he wants as much as he can get. The transition isn't there.
This same lack of connecting the dots is a weakness throughout the film. Late in the film, Jay and Tony seem to resent Stacy's success. Stacy comments that he was the last one to leave the team. Based on the story, he was, so why are they resentful? Why is Tony Alva resentful of Stacy Peralta? The film portrays Tony Alva as a much bigger celebrity, why would he be resentful? At one point, Stacy's girlfriend is Kathy (Nikki Reed, "thirteen"), Tony's sister. When Stacy declines to join a party, she immediately hooks up with Jay. Don't get it or understand why she would do this.
Jay, as played by Emile Hirsch, is a complicated character, and perhaps the most interesting and inconsistent of the group. As a skateboarder, he seems fearless and a bit crazed, always running around with his tongue hanging out and his eyes wild. He is a kid out of control. These scenes, on their own, would be hard to watch and believe, yet they are balanced by a couple of scenes depicting his family life. The first time we see him, he is sneaking into his mother's bedroom to borrow her boyfriend's surfboard. The boyfriend wakes up yelling and then realizes it is Jay. They both encourage him to take it. Jay's mom, Philaine, played by Rebecca De Mornay, is very convincing as a woman living in a fog of drugs and alcohol. She loves her kid and he loves her. But his life at home is screwed up. Towards the end of the film, there is a shift in Jay's character which I didn't believe. It may have actually happened in real life, but as depicted in the film, it isn't convincing.
There are a lot of scenes of the four main characters skateboarding around and watching each other in awe. These scenes have a sort of visual grace to them but there are way too many of them. How many times can we watch people skateboard in loopy circles up a ramp?
"Dogtown" needed fewer scenes of skateboarding and more scenes exploring the relationships between the characters. Hardwicke showed such a knack for this in her debut film "thirteen" I was disappointed she didn't continue the tradition in this film.