The rowdy and sometimes painfully raw "Lords of Dogtown" is a perfect marriage between film and skateboarder, and the way in which the camera tracks every incredible move of the movie's virtuosos gives it a dynamic, exhilarating energy.
But the film offers much more than that, for as a narrative it allows for more dimension and involvement than the 2001 documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys," directed by Stacy Peralta, who in the '70s became a pioneering skateboard superstar along with his pals Tony Alva and Jay Adams.
Now Peralta has turned screenwriter, dramatizing their story in no-holds-barred fashion but entrusting the film's direction to Catherine Hardwicke, an inspired choice, given the insight and compassion for troubled, reckless teens she revealed so memorably in "Thirteen."
Two events coincided in the mid-'70s that would allow these three teenagers and their friends to transform a pastime involving nothing more spectacular than endless handstands and 360-degree spins into a dazzling, dizzying precursor of extreme sports. First was the invention of urethane wheels and, second, the drought that emptied swimming pools all over Westside L.A. This meant the skateboarders now had wheels that could grip concrete, leading to "the birth of the vertical," with these budding stars able to skate up the curved sides of pools.
With the exception of their rich kid cohort Sid (Michael Angarano), Stacy (John Robinson), Jay (Emile Hirsch) and Tony (Victor Rasuk) live in or near Dogtown, composed of parts of Venice, Ocean Park and south Santa Monica. For their skating style, they took inspiration from surfers, who wove in and out of the pilings of the rotting Pacific Ocean Park pier, closed in 1967. They hung out at the Zephyr Surf Shop, run by Skip (Heath Ledger, in a sometimes wavering "dude" accent), a hard-living hell-raiser. He organized the skateboarders into a team, the Z-Boys, and entered them into competitions that made them virtually overnight sensations.
At this point, the picture exalts in the Z-Boys' carefree, nervy lifestyle, in which these teens' daring stunts on wheels matched the intensity of their partying and girl-chasing.
Differences in the key players' personalities emerge subtly. Stacy is decidedly the most serious of the triumvirate, while Tony craves the better life he believes the riches of stardom will bring. The most impoverished and troubled of the three, Jay above all wants to be able to take care of his mother (Rebecca De Mornay), a loving but ineffectual woman, an aging California Girl who has endured too much partying and too much sun.
Hardwicke and Peralta deftly begin moving past this period in the Z-Boys' lives, which in hindsight appears innocent and idyllic, as they become targeted by promoters out to exploit them -- with Stacy and Tony but not Jay ultimately able to outsmart their exploiters. "Lords of Dogtown" at this point takes on a satirical edge, as the marketeers, merchandisers and media turn the three into superstars -- Stacy even lands a guest spot on "Charlie's Angels."
The film never loses its heart, as the limelight and spiraling competition strain friendships and incite ugly behavior but reveal a youthful vulnerability that makes the three engaging and their sometimes obnoxious, self-defeating behavior understandable under the circumstances. As in "Thirteen" Hardwicke has been able to inspire unsparing portrayals from young actors, and Robinson, Hirsch, Rasuk and Angarano are completely winning. William Mapother is incisive, as usual, as one of a number of slick types eager to cash in on the Z-Boys.
"Lords of Dogtown" is as beautifully structured as one of the Z-Boys' graceful and intricate maneuvers. It is economic yet possesses depth and is visually striking, capturing an idea of what life is like in a very fast lane. Elliot Davis' camerawork is a marvel of fluidity, yet its flourishes serve the story and never merely call attention to themselves.
Recent decades are always a challenge to evoke, because of their inherently dated effect, but production designer Chris Gorak and costume designer Cindy Evans move the audience back three decades without a trace of self-consciousness or caricature. The same goes for Mark Mothersbaugh's score.
"Lords of Dogtown" isn't nostalgic -- it's too clear-eyed for that; it's happening right now.
'Lords of Dogtown'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for drug and alcohol content, sexuality, violence, language and reckless behavior -- all involving teens
Times guidelines: Unsuitable for younger children
A Columbia Pictures presentation of a TriStar Pictures release. Director Catherine Hardwicke. Producer John Linson. Screenplay by Stacy Peralta. Cinematographer Elliot Davis. Editor Nancy Richardson. 2nd unit director/stunt coordinator Thomas Robinson Harper. Music Mark Mothersbaugh. Costumes Cindy Evans. Production designer Chris Gorak. Art director Seth Reed. Set decorator Gene Serdena. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
In select theaters.