Lords of Dogtown

(2005) ** 1/2 Pg-13
107 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Catherine Hardwicke. Cast: Heath Ledger, John Robinson, Victor Rasuk, Emile Hirsch, Nikki Reed.

Is it fair to compare Lords of Dogtown—written by Stacy Peralta about Peralta and his confederates in the early days of skateboard stunt riding—to Dogtown and Z-Boys, the well-regarded 2002 documentary (on the same subject) written and directed by Peralta? Perhaps I've answered my own question. Even knowing that Catherine Hardwicke's Lords of Dogtown will reach a wider audience, and the narrative film is a different beast from a doc, it's hard to shake the feeling that Hardwicke's film is a stunt itself, with talented young actors dolled up in skater drag to peddle Peralta's sophomoric declamations and self-mythology.

A little too efficiently, Peralta's "inspired by a true story" screenplay moves through its key historical points: at the decrepit Pacific Ocean Park pier, adult beach bums (including Heath Ledger as Skip Engblom) surf their turf and lord it over their worshipful teen mentees, surfers and skateboarders all. When newfangled urethane wheels make it into Engblom's Zephyr Surf Shop, the new toys instantly change skateboarding—with the greater mobility they allow, the possibilities of stunt-riding seem limitless, and the "Z-Boys" of the quickly-formed Zephyr Team are only too happy to push the envelope.

Peralta (played by John Robinson of Elephant) is the too-normal teen who holds down a job and therefore has everything to prove to dedicated slacker Engblom. Top-billed Emile Hirsch (The Girl Next Door) ably plays volatile Jay Adams, whose roiling mystery goes explored mostly in Hardwicke's visual poetry. Victor Rasuk of Raising Victor Vargas plays Tony "Mad Dog" Alva, the hotdogger with the runaway ego, and Michael Angarano (Seabiscuit) plays rich-kid hanger-on Sid Gianetti, a dubious composite character who ends up serving as a plot device, in spite of Angarano's committed performance.

The essential nature of the story comes through: the boyz of dingy Dogtown rise to reckless glory, lose sight of team spirit, and begin looking out for number one. Hardwicke's visual sense is unimpeachable, with dynamic handheld camera moves and fly-on-the-wall photography that instantly recall Thirteen; the all-important boarding looks good, with trick editing and sometime stunt doubles well integrated. It's the unintentionally comical exaggeration (for narrative expediency) that weighs down Lords of Dogtown. Rasuk and Ledger overplay their characters, with the latter waving his fingers and jabbering like Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys.

Peralta himself does the most damage, though. In the end, he's affectionate to his peers, but his settling of old scores and self-serving puffery are unmistakable. Peralta has his screen ex-girlfriend tell his screen self, "Everyone sees it their own way, I guess," an obvious excuse for Peralta's unapologetically subjective take (especially without a credited co-writer, could it be otherwise?). Some of Peralta's necessary shorthand and too much of his pointed dialogue come off as laughable (Neil Young's "Old Man," used effectively by Peralta in Z-Boys, seems faintly ridiculous here). In the end, Dogtown plays like one of those TV movies about the true story of the Beach Boys, a "B" movie with some "A" talent behind it.

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