Waiting For Lightning
Dec. 7, call for showtimes, Criterion Cinemas, 86 Temple St., New Haven, (203) 498-2500, bowtiecinemas.com
"Goals can be dangerous." So says pro skateboarder Rodney Mullen about 35 minutes into Waiting for Lightning, a documentary about extreme skateboarder Danny Way that opens in New Haven on Dec. 7. "We all set goals. It's what makes you go forward."
Mullen's not talking about ordinary goals: getting up on time for work, renovating the kitchen, losing 10 lbs. He means leaping across the Great Wall of China on a skateboard, a feat performed by Way in 2005, carefully documented in the film, which toggles between the construction of a super-mega-ramp (the term "mega-ramp," we learn, is reserved for Way's slightly smaller 2002 version, the one that helped him set world records for longest and highest jumps) engineered to launch the skater over the Wall; footage of Way's childhood in Vista, Calif.; and dozens of interviews with skaters, Way's business partners and other extreme athletes, including surfer Laird Hamilton and motocross pro Travis Pastrana.
It's hard for concussion-averse normal folks to understand the extreme sports movement. Watching Way, Hamilton or Pastrana perform implausible stunts isn't that far removed from viewing old YouTube clips of Evel Knievel soaring over school buses, or tightrope walker Nik Wallenda crossing Niagara Falls in prime time. All of these acts are similarly guaranteed a huge audience of rubberneckers. You can't practice jumping national monuments, and if you slip up, you die. And that ultimately makes for compelling cinema.
The film, in chronological fashion, adequately explains the deep-seated motivations behind Way's drive. At 3, he mastered the skateboard, placing a knee on the board and kicking with the other leg to keep up with his older brother; and at 6, Way caught his first glimpse of skaters flying out of pools at the famous Del Mar Skateboard Ranch in Del Mar, Calif. "It was the only thing I could think about from that point on," Way says. His mother, Mary, became a single mom to Way and his older brother Damon after the tragic death of their father Dennis, who was hanged in prison (the film wisely avoids getting too deep into the details) while serving a brief stint for missing a child support payment to his ex-wife. Mary subsequently married a free-spirited surfer named Tim O'Dea in 1977, and the Way brothers landed a father figure, one who built them skateboards.
Danny Way, smaller and younger than his brother and his skating peers, earned respect by attempting tricks, kissing girls, anything he was told. You sense the birth, here, of an unhealthy addiction to pain.
The good times didn't last. Mary, still reeling from the loss of Dennis, left Tim and started partying. Boyfriends and drug dealers beat the pulp out of Damon and Danny. Police were involved. Danny, who was denied permission to live with his stepdad, struggled. He found refuge in skateboarding, eventually hooking up with promoter and maternal stand-in Gale Webb, who saw in him an unusual degree of focus. He landed on the demo circuit, and the shy youngster lit up in front of crowds.
The accolades came fast: Way was named Skater of the Year in 1991 by Thrasher Magazine, and there are scenes of him accepting another award with his arm in a sling. He was also a pro snowboarder, an accomplished motocross rider and terrific surfer. But interaction with other people became increasingly strained, and the Ways' liberal household further disintegrated. Fatherly stand-ins and career-threatening injuries, including a broken neck, came and went. Stakes were raised again and again, as Way sought challenges that baffled his friends and family.
Scenes of Way's home life in Rainbow, Calif., out on a hill in the middle of nowhere, show him riding dirt bikes and chafing at police involvement. He started being able to afford his fantasies — guns, dirt bikes, trucks. As the skateboard movement entered its street phase — skaters began using the urban landscape in place of controlled parks — Way was one of the few athletes able to make the transition. "Danny was doing some of the heaviest street skating at the time," says pro skateboarder Tony Hawk. With a new peer group of street skaters to impress, Way thrived, and naturally worked harder — and inflicted more self-harm — than anyone else in the group.
The spills are wild. At the ESPN X-Games in 2004, Way wipes out, hard, gets up, walks away, limps back out and tries his jump again. He's tough, we are made to understand. And that leads to bigger and more extreme challenges. "There is an addiction to progression," Hawk says. "When you get that mind-set, it doesn't matter how successful you are. You have to keep challenging yourself... At some point, that becomes a curse."
The construction footage of the Great Wall ramp drags at times, but there are some hilarious scenes of a Chinese Minister of Extreme Sports (!) newscaster manipulating a diagram of Way going down a ramp and over the Wall. "Your mandatory support of Danny Way is greatly encouraged," reads the English subtitles.
Waiting for Lighting, perhaps because it tempers its reliance on overly dramatic backstory while mixing in plenty of gnarly skateboarding footage, is a great addition to the growing canon of extreme-sport documentaries. Way is genuine and likable; you want him to succeed, even if you can't fully grasp why he'd risk his life for a stunt. For Chinese onlookers, however, as Way leaps and spins over their national treasure, "It's the greatest expression of freedom in a land that's so controlled," as one commenter says. That alone might be worth the risk.