On the surface “Lords of Dogtown” isn’t a movie that would normally appeal to me. But underneath my speculative blanket of low expectations lies an entertaining and compelling story based in a world that is totally new to me. And while it does fall victim to a few missteps in its second half, “Lords of Dogtown” ends up being a well made biopic of sorts that features some really good performances.
The film is set in Santa Monica, California during the early 1970’s and follows three boys who become skateboarding legends. Stacy Peralta (John Robinson), Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), and Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch) are young teens who love to surf and skate. They are encouraged to try out a new skateboard designed by a local surf shop owner and board designer Skip Engblom (Heath Ledger). They form a team under Skip’s leadership and begin taking area competitions by storm. This leads to a level of success and pressure that the boys never expected.
As I mentioned “Lords of Dogtown” is a biography. Known as The Z-Boys, Peralta, Alva, and Adams gained celebrity in their local community and have been catapulted to legendary status by those who know skateboarding. As with every biopic there is that question of what is accurate and what was added. But it’s interesting that the story was written by Stacy Peralta himself which I think brings a lot of life to the film. I found a clear and evident personal connection brought to the characters that I attribute to Peralta. From their early mischievous troublemaking to their later struggles brought on my conflicting personalities and fame, the characters feel real and authentic, at least through most of the film.
I also give a ton of credit to director Catherine Hardwicke. Her presentation of this wild and frenetic world is spectacular. Her cameras are always catching great shots through cool movements and clever angles. She also does a wonderful job of making you feel you’re in that era. The outfits, the cars, the lingo, the fantastic soundtrack – it’s all used seamlessly to recreate a highly believable 1970’s. It’s one of the movie’s strongest points.
The performances from the three young stars are also impressive. They each handle the material very well as they take their characters through stages of adolescent playfulness, poor decision making, troubled home life, and more. Of the three it’s Hirsch who shines brightest. Unfortunately all fall victim to a few missteps in the writing later in the film but overall they’re very good. But for me the real star was Heath ledger. He is brilliant as Skip Engblom – a complicated and layered character to say the least. Ledger loses himself in the performance and he owns every scene he is in. In fact, an acquaintance of the real Skip Engblom stated that it was eerie how accurate and precise Ledger’s performance was.
Now if only I could end the review here and say that “Lords of Dogtown” is a perfect and flawless movie. Unfortunately I can’t. Everything in the film clicks right up until the third act. To be honest, it’s hard to put my finger on where things stray off. But things do start to feel a bit conventional and the story direction feels a bit fabricated. The authenticity that fuels most of the film gives way to a handful of plot devices that just felt off. It suddenly begin to feel like a movie, so much so that I begin questioning some of the things from earlier in the movie.
“Lords of Dogtown” does lose some steam towards the end. Yet as the credits were rolling I realized how much I liked the film. It may feel a little too polished for some and a little too abrasive for others. But I found it easy to overlook the problems and embrace the compelling story of these three friends. And considering how low my expectations were, well lets just say that made it all the more enjoyable.