Nearly everything fresh and exciting about the 2002 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys - the story of the Santa Monica-Ocean Park-Venice area misfits who revolutionized skateboarding in the 1970s - becomes studied and secondhand in The Lords of Dogtown.
Written by the man who wrote and directed the documentary, Stacy Peralta, this fictionalized version focuses on the same characters emerging from the Zephyr skating team: Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), the obstreperous showboat, and Peralta himself (John Robinson), the even-keeled golden boy. They share the center with Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), who races through as a troublemaking sprite, the pure improv artist who disdains or merely can't handle the sport's commercialization.
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke in a jittery style similar to her anti-coming-of-age film thirteen, the movie does wring heart-stopping entertainment from this trio's rise. It's more fun to see misfit teenagers from dysfunctional families and the wrong end of the beach reinvent their sport and take it over, imbuing it with the moves of hot-dog surfers, than it is to see Russell Crowe absorb a punch.
Hardwicke and Peralta present their boys' paroxysm of creativity as an outgrowth of exploding hormones and adolescent alienation. When they invent vertical skateboarding by taking over empty swimming pools during a drought and racing their boards up the sides, the urge comes partly from the chance to thumb their noses at bourgeois homeowners and attract admiring upscale babes. When they rampage through national competitions, they're like practitioners of basketball's street game riding roughshod over the white-bread NBA of the 1950s and early 1960s.
Even then, I kept wondering what Peralta thought he could accomplish with a feature that he didn't already do better in the documentary. As they say in baseball, the characters mostly just "hold their positions." Viewers will simply peg Alva as the kinky-haired, feisty one, and Peralta as the long-haired blond with power like the Mighty Thor.
When success hits them hard and they leave the Zephyr team to strike richer deals with mass manufacturers or become their own entrepreneurs, they simply grow apart. Adams supplies the manic-depressive moves and glares that give the film some emotional traction; he aches for trouble from the moment his mom (the transfixing Rebecca De Mornay) gets abandoned by her latest man. And Hardwicke shows a real gift for capturing the worn sensuality and neediness of fortysomething females like De Mornay or Holly Hunter in thirteen.
But in Lords of Dogtown, Hardwicke and De Mornay don't go far enough into limning what it means to be a sexy mama in the midst of all this raging underage testosterone. Jay and Stacy briefly spar for Tony's sister (Nikki Reed), but this love triangle fizzles on its urethane wheels. The unmanageable explosiveness of teen sex must be one area Peralta thought he could explore more deeply here than in the documentary. Too bad his depiction of it is more sloppy or silly than incendiary and does nothing to extend our understanding of the characters.
I'd rather have learned more about their families and social background, or the tradition of extreme surfboarding, or the young stars' positions as media models who play into their own images, or their consciousness of being American pioneers at the tip of a conquered continent. Dogtown and Z-Boys covered all this better than The Lords of Dogtown.
The arrested adolescent character of Skip Engblom, the mentor-entrepreneur who practiced tough-love on his team yet kept the faith with his own personal counterculture, has more genuine pathos than any of the kids. Eager to drop his heartthrob image, Heath Ledger plays him with a grungy dignity that underlies even his drunken bouts of self-pity.
Sadly, Peralta and Hardwicke descend to a despicable heartbreak finish as the lead boys re- unite to skateboard in the drained pool of a rich buddy (a composite character) suffering from a terminal brain tumor and using a wheelchair. As they roll him to the center of their pool-bottom whirligig of action, you fear the filmmakers are setting Weekend at Bernie's on Wheels.
SUN SCORE ** 1/2 stars (2 1/2 stars)
The Lords of Dog town
Starring Emile Hirsch, Rebecca De Mornay, Heath Ledger, John Robinson, Victor Rasuk
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke
Released by Sony
Time 105 minutes