Lords of Dogtown (review)

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Director Catherine Hardwicke is back in the teen milieu she covered to such devastating effect in her debut film, Thirteen, though here she’s gone historical, documenting how a gang of misfit kids in 1970s Venice Beach, California, pretty much invented the idea of extreme sports by becoming daredevil skateboarders, and getting famous for it. It’s true that this same story was told just a few years ago in the actual documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, but the two films complement each other nicely, this one telling deeply personal stories that the doc only touched on. Hardwicke’s gritty touch and unwillingness to romanticize adolescence keeps her film from being as brashly celebratory as it might have been, what with the script having been written by one of the now-grownup participants in the events and all. (That would be Stacy Peralta, who dropped out of partaking in extreme sports to make films about them; he also directed Z-Boys.) And while there’s a certain breathless element of wow-fame-changed-everything that feels awfully familiar, the power of the film comes before that, as Hardwicke gives us a Venice that’s more demilitarized zone than residential neighborhood, and as her electrifying cast of young men — including John Robinson as Peralta, Victor Rasuk as Tony Alva, and Emile Hirsch (The Emperor’s Club) as Jay Adams, the most famous of the team of skateboarders to come out of “Dogtown” — show us how boredom, poverty, hopelessness galvanized them, even if the characters they’re playing are too young and too high on their own verve and sense of indestructibility to know it. But the real revelation is Heath Ledger (The Order) as surf-shop owner Skip Engblom, who forged the team of restless adolescent skateboarders only to watch their stars zoom way past his own. My first response, upon being blown away by his prickly performance, was to suggest that he’s maturing into a kind of Val Kilmer-esque edginess; after finally seeing Z-Boys, it became clear that he’s channeling the real Engblom to a scary degree. Either way, Ledger’s star, if not poor Skip’s, is looking even more heavenly.

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