In the late 1970’s, a group of kids in Venice, California who loved to surf invented a new kind of skateboarding and a new kind of cool.
Three ingredients came together. The first was technology. Skateboards were a fad that had pretty much gone the way of the hula hoop. The clay wheels broke easily. But the invention of polyurethane wheels meant more speed and durability, and they had enough of a grip to enable skateboarding on ramps and other stunts.
The second was empty swimming pools. California was experiencing a drought, and throughout Venice people drained their pools to conserve water.
And the third was time. The kids had a whole summer with nothing else to do. No one was paying much attention to them; they were like Peter Pan’s Lost Boys and Venice was their Neverland. They figured out that they could apply surfing techniques to the newly souped-up skateboards and ride the sides of the pools like concrete waves. Until then, skateboarding had always been horizontal and its few tricks were things like handstands. The polyurethane wheels in the empty pools led to the discovery of “the vert.” The Venice Lost Boys found a way to make their skateboards go up the sides of the pools, spin around in the air, and skate back down.
And they did it with attitude. They were rude, arrogant, explosive, extreme. Of course they became a sensation.
A local surf shop called The Zephyr sponsored them as a team, so they became the Z-Boys. When they showed up for their first competition, Skip Engbloom (Heath Ledger), slammed the entry fee down on the registration table and demanded they hand over the prizes. If the skateboarding world up to then was like a soundtrack by Herb Alpert and Jan & Dean, the Z-Boys arrived to the tunes of Aerosmith and Jimi Hendrix. They changed the rules and soon they ruled the world. When all they wanted was to create cool tricks, they were friends to the end. But then they wanted different things, as though each of them could only hold onto one third of their dream. Peralta wanted to use skateboarding to lead to other opportunities, Alva to being the greatest skateboarder in the world, Adams to being cool and outside. Each thought he was being true to where they came from.
Success is a tougher challenge than a multiple 360, espcially when your coolness comes from being an outsider. The Z-Boys who maintained their balance on the most dangerous skateboard stunts began to wipe out the way anyone who has ever watched an epsiode of VH1: Behind the Music knows all too well.
This story, originally told in a superb documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys, has now been turned into a feature film, written by Stacy Peralta, one of the original Z-Boys, and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, whose thirteen was a searing portrayal of a middle-schooler who was enticed by a “cool” friend into drugs, shop-lifting, and sexual experimentation. They do a good job of creating the real and gritty feel of the hormone-charged impetuousness and taut, sinewy energy of a group of teenaged boys no one was paying much attention to. As in her previous work as a production designer (Laurel Canyon, Three Kings) she is able to tell us a lot about the characters and the story with the setting, and as in thirteen, she shows sensitive and perceptive insights into the mixture of bravado and insecurity of adolescence.
But the script falls short for a couple of reasons, one small, one big. The small reason is that it is supposed to be an objective look at the entire group but is limited by Peralta’s own experience and occasionally self-serving viewpoint. While it may be true that he was more stable and mature than the two other Z-boys who are given most of the attention here, Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk of Raising Victor Vargas) and Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), at times the Peralta character (John Robinson) looks like an angel and seems almost saintly.
The more serious problem is that in both form and content it is all but impossible not to suffocate the appeal of the outsider and the rebel by trying to contain or imitate them. The very accidental nature of the Z-boys’ inventions and the found art aspect of the amateurish early footage in the documentary are what provide authenticity and a sense of discovery. Any attempt to re-create, especially as a PG-13 version of a very R-rated story inevitably feels forced and formulaic. Hardwicke has a superb sense of the time and place — you can almost smell the ocean and even the faint residue of chlorine in the empty pools. Hirsch and Rasuk are excellent and the wonderful Michael Angarano (of television’s “Will and Grace) has a fresh but low-key quality as a guy who can hang on to friends more easily than he can hang on to a skateboard, but it is a shame to see thirteen’s Nikki Reed and Real Women Have Curve’s America Ferrera relegated to arm candy. The one who fares worst, though, is Ledger, who acts as though he’s afraid those prosthetic teeth are about to slide out of this mouth. His performance is a wipe-out.
Parents should know that the movie has very strong material for a PG-13, on the edge of an R-rating. There are sexual references and situations, including groupies. Characters, including those who are underage and one who is a parent, drink, smoke, use drugs, use very strong language, and engage in a lot of high risk, irresponsible, and illegal behavior. A character goes to jail on drug-related charges. There are tense and unhappy scenes between friends and family members and there is a sad death.
Families who see this movie should talk about why the boys went in different directions. Was it the influence of their families? Was it because they wanted different things?
Families who enjoy this movie should see the superb documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys, written and directed by Stacy Peralta and narrated by Sean Penn. They should also see Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator, a documentary about skateboarding champion Mark Rogowski, who spun out of control and is now serving a life sentence for rape and murder. They will also appreciate two documentaries about surfing, Step into Liquid and one by Peralta, Riding Giants.