While Dogtown and Z-Boys was an innovative documentary that treated the creation of a wily and iconoclastic subculture with an artistic effort that actually did it justice, the fictional movie version is little more than a Bad News Bears on acid. And given that this is a film about the pioneering skateboarders from the slums of Santa Monica and Venice, California, in the 1970s, we'll say that by acid, we don't mean the skateboarding drops; we mean LSD.
What usually happens when Hollywood takes over a true story is that a team of writers comes in with a director who has no relation to the subject matter, and they churn out a formulaic version akin to something that worked in the past. In this case, they turn it into that old yarn about a group of misfits with the zeal for a sport and nothing to lose who get shaped into a team by a drunken lout who turns out to have a great affection for them. All this love helps them triumph over the more affluent and stable teams from the burbs, and everyone's happy in the end.
Heath Ledger fills out the Buttermaker role as Skip, the hard-drinking owner of a surf shop and the leader of the local band of renegade surfers who frequent the ruins of the Pacific Ocean Park Pier. The younglings who follow him around never get any surf time, so they take to their skateboards instead. With the invention of polyurethane wheels, three of them become sensations on the team Skip forms to take the staid competition world by storm.
The boys, as they are called even though there's a girl in the group, become a team of teen archetypes. Stacy Peralta, the real-life member who directed the documentary and wrote the screenplay, is the straight man, played by John Robinson in a retiring way that puts all the emphasis on his long blond locks and rosy cheeks. Crazy Tony Alva, who's still a skateboarding sensation, is played by Victor Rasuk as the out-of-control teen trying to defy his father. Jay Adams, now out of jail after a life of woe, is, in Emile Hirsch's depiction, the soft-hearted boy who can't escape his troubles. There's even a sick kid (à la Timmy Lupus) named Sid (Michael Angarano) who has an inner ear disorder.
If all that had come of this was a Bad News Bears retread, it might have turned out better. But the film was saddled with the additional burden of having Peralta on board creatively. While some writers are able to use the fictional medium to their benefit and create wonderful coming-of-age stories with characters based on themselves, Peralta seems stymied by having already told his story exactly the way he wanted to tell it.
The fictionalization is a second-thought effort that uses leftover bits of material and goes out of its way not to rehash any of the original '- out of fear of copying, no doubt '- which makes it miss all the streaks of genius that were there. Because not enough people saw the documentary or are sufficiently versed in skateboarding history to know the full story, it would have helped if the film reiterated some of the key elements.
Peralta and director Catherine Hardwicke, who scored with the teen-gone-bad movie Thirteen, also try too hard to infuse the feeling of rebel surf culture into the style of the film. The revolutionary feeling that came out naturally in the documentary translates here into muddy cinematography, musical riffs in place of character development and a plot with too much disjointed craziness to make any sense.
The biggest problem is that the drama is out of pace, as if the filmmakers couldn't find the heart of the story. There's no World Series championship or major epiphany to work toward. Rather, the story gets parceled out in little chunks that give no sense of how much time is passing in between. The film tries to make something out of the summer the boys take to skateboarding in empty swimming pools, a whim that leads to a breakthrough in the sport's style, but that doesn't really work as a narrative high point. From there, the boys go their separate ways and have crisis points at different times, and the film just slips away.
iVillage Mood Meter: Will make you want to rent the documentary for the real story
Stars: Heath Ledger, John Robinson, Emile Hirsch, Victor Rasuk
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Screenwriter: Stacy Peralta
Producers: Joseph Drake, David Fincher, Art Linson
Release date: June 3, 2005