When the sullen and fearless blond teenage boys in Lords of Dogtown ride their skateboards, never pausing to think about anything that isn’t directly in front of them, the movie joins them right on the pavement, racing forward with grungy velocity, showing us what the skaters are seeing and feeling as they ride along back alleys, dilapidated asphalt playgrounds, and any other available surface: a world of trash transcended. The camera, sharing the high, threads its way through a double row of cars, and it’s like a moment out of a Jerry Bruckheimer chase thriller, except that there’s nothing at all fanciful or exaggerated about it. The sequence gives you a charge because it’s entirely real — a God-on-the-street’s-eye view of skateboard heaven.
The year is 1975, and the daredevil boarders — Stacy Peralta (John Robinson), Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), and Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch) — are the original skate punks. They’re from Venice and Santa Monica, a.k.a. Dogtown, a rough-and-tumble ”ghetto by the sea” that’s nevertheless been touched by the stoned karma of surf culture. The surfers, macho as bikers, are a fading breed, but the skateboarders are too young to have tasted the ’60s. They’re disaffected hippie fallout, the long-haired sleepy children of divorce and drugs, and they translate surf moves — the extremes of balance and plunging bravado — from water to concrete. They take a pastime that’s little more than a hula hoop novelty and turn it into a sexy, thrashing assertion of underground style.
Lords of Dogtown is a docudrama, rare in its grit and authenticity, that also strives for the mythical youth-rebel excitement of something like 8 Mile. The film was written by Peralta himself, and it stays extremely close to the events laid out in his superb 2002 documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys. We see the introduction of urethane wheels, which allow the skaters to grip any surface, and we meet Skip Engblom, the bedraggled burnout of a surf-shop owner who organizes the kids into the Zephyr Team, which becomes their debauched surrogate family. Skip is played by Heath Ledger, who gives a witty performance as a sloshed old lion who still has some bite left. The first time the Z-Boys show up at a competition, skating to Black Sabbath, it’s hilarious — they’re like devil hooligans invading a garden party. But they become a sensation. You might say that they’re escaping the reality of their lives, except that the director, Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen), shows you how skateboarding, for these kids, is reality — the only one they care about. When they sneak into emptied-out swimming pools during a Southern California drought, riding their boards up and over the walls of the curvy smooth basins, it’s because they’re looking for a more bone-jangling rush, a way to cut through the numbness, to vent their aggression as they soar. The pools become bowls of vertical bliss.
Hardwicke is the rare director whose work is at once kinesthetic and delicate. She stages Lords of Dogtown with a rushing, caught-on-the-fly realism that may, in the end, prove more artful than commercial, yet she makes her characters vibrant and full. The contrasting temperaments of the brash, moonstruck Tony, the chivalrous Stacy, and the moody, troubled Jay come to the fore gradually, as they’re confronted with success. The three become stars, boy kings of the ’70s media/endorsement culture, and in different ways it tears each of them apart. But that, the movie says, is tied to the nature of what they invented: a sport that never had any motive beyond the go-for-broke impulse of flying off the next curve.