Surfing on Cement

Stacy Peralta’s spectacular look at California’s skateboarding explosion

Skateboarding, like many sports, is itself an art form requiring skill, agility, thick skin, speed and grace. Stacy Peralta is now on his second outing to capture one art form in another—film. A seminal figure in the emergence of the modern skateboarding culture and industry—amidst the youth scene of mid-1970s Venice Beach, California, aka Dogtown—Peralta has written the screenplay “Lords of Dogtown,” a dramatic retelling of a story of his first “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” the 2001 documentary that he directed, with narration by Sean Penn, no less, that took home Best Documentary from Sundance that year.

This time out, Peralta and director Catherine Hardwicke, herself a 2003 Sundance Award winner for “Thirteen,” tell a great tale, but one that he has already given us. The material gets reduced to teen drama status, a marketing ploy targeting the WB crowd, not an easy thing to take seriously. Yet, it surely will be one of the highlights of the summer.

Until a group of scrappy surfer kids—Peralta, Tony Alva and Jay Adams—took their renegade surf style and applied it to the board on wheels, skateboarding was little more than a dog-and-pony-show, with competitions full of entrants whose prime appeal was simply their ability to stay upright without falling off. The skateboard was considered an anachronism, to be found alongside yo-yos and slingshots.

The elements that came together to revolutionize it into what we now refer to as an extreme sport are themselves intriguing. First and foremost came the invention of wheels manufactured from urethane—“They’re made from oil!”—with the capacity to grip surfaces, allowing these kids to experiment with weaving in and out of traffic, gripping the roofs of cars, and, perhaps most importantly, the empty swimming pools, made possible by a serendipitous drought that plagued Southern California in the ‘70s. These otherwise unused cement ponds came to be referred to as “dog bowls” and the rebellious process by which this sport was perfected taps into the teenager in all of us. It is thrilling to watch these kids break into the backyards of upper middle class and wealthy Angelinos and then trespass the laws of physics, as well, all with an unmistakable passion. The efforts of Peralta and his crew were eventually popularized through exposure in magazines such as “Skateboard” and “Thrashin’”—they were quickly propelled into nothing less than the top skaters in the world. They were to skateboarding then what Tiger Woods is to golf today.

The film’s casting is superb. All of the actors—relative unknowns in mainstream film—are fantastic in their roles, and this film has a good shot at catapulting the three heroes into major heartthrob status. Victor Rasuk (from the critically acclaimed “Raising Victor Vargas”) plays Alva. The Harlem-born actor has talked about the effort required to lose his New York edge and turn into a surfer dude, while learning moves from Alva himself to authenticate the role. Emile Hirsch (“The Dangerous Life of Altar Boys”) portrays Adams, the “true” rebel who rejects even his friends and their newfound money and fame. Later in life Adams ran into problems with alcohol and drugs, did some time and disappeared in Hawaii until Peralta and his team went searching for him to breathe life into the original documentary project. Rounding out the trinity is newcomer John Robinson, who plays Peralta, and who mesmerized filmgoers in 2003 in Gus Van Sant’s Cannes Film Festival Palm d’Or winner “Elephant,” the high school massacre story inspired by events at Columbine.

Other casting coups give the film a surreal quality. Rebecca De Mornay plays Adams’s beleaguered, white-trash mom, and if this film is this summer’s “8 Mile,” De Mornay has the plum Kim Basinger role here. Johnny Knoxville appears as the pimped-out Topper Burks, Alexis Arquette does a quick tranny cameo and Heath Ledger is Skip Engblom, the older dude who ran Zephyr, the surfer shop where the kids, dubbed the Z-Boys, hung out and worked, the place that turned into ground zero for this new posse of punks. Ledger’s challenge is giving life to a character who amounts to little more than a drunk with a good idea but who can’t hold it together. His performance falls short in originality; though it is fun to watch. He basically plays Val Kilmer playing Jim Morrison stoned.

New cinematography tricks (never-before-seen “board-cams” put us “right there”), a killer soundtrack featuring 1970s thumb-nosing songs by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Marc Bolan and the tried-and-true look of hot, shirtless high school boys hell bent on conquering the world and bucking authority give the film true hipster cred.

You’ll want to see this film.

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