Lords of Dogtown


Emile Hirsch as Jay Adams
Victor Rasuk as Tony Alva
John Robinson as Stacy Peralta
Michael Angarano as Sid
Nikki Reed as Kathy Alva
Heath Ledger as Skip Engblom
Johnny Knoxville as Topper Burks

In the mid-1970s, a group of skaters known as the Z-Boys of Dogtown – a slum in Venice, California – began mixing surfing techniques with skateboarding and created a sport for the counterculture that’s still going strong 30 years later.

One of the characters labels Dogtown an awful heaven and that’s exactly what it is for the kids who live there. They have no hopes and no aspirations, and in their destitution they’ve found freedom, doing what they want, when they want. It’s this particular attitude, combined with athletic grace, that continues to make it so attractive to many people, and which has come to define skateboarding as a sport.

The original Z-boys were the skate team for the Zephyr surf shop run by Skip Engblom (a so-deep-in-character-he’s-almost-unrecognizable Heath Ledger), a hero for the boys of Dogtown who despises the very people that idolize him, looking at them only as a way to make money. Out of the ragtag group, three stars rise immediately to the top – Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk) and Stacy Peralta (John Robinson).

As their lifestyle and skating techniques begins to sweep the youth of the nation, the boys are driven farther and farther away from each other and what made them take up and enjoy skating in the first place.

Lords of Dogtown is a slightly fantasized (it plays up the glorious side of being a penniless skater, plays down the pitfalls like a lack of a place to live or food to eat) but mostly frank look at the lives of these three pioneers. The skating scenes are well choreographed and put together, with the camera often strapped to a board of its own, giving the audience a real in-the-moment sense of flying down the pavement. Director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen) tries hard to make the skateboarding itself a part of their characters, but it only really works with Jay, who uses it as a means of escaping the anger that follows him everywhere, and who only seems really at peace when he’s trying new moves on new surfaces.

The only real problem of the film – a problem that plagues many true-story films – is that it deals mostly with the surface events, and doesn’t dig very far into why they did what they did. Jay has a restless anger at the world that seems to be connected to his father (William Mapother) abandoning him and his surf betty mother (Rebecca De Mornay). Tony also has father issues, continually pushed to do something with his life and stop wasting time skating and surfing. Stacy Peralta is the only one with a plan or any ambition to do more with his life than skate, for which he is derided by Skip and the other Z-Boys. And that’s about all we ever know about them.

Eventually, as happens with anything that is popular, corporations sink their teeth into them, tearing the boys apart as they each look for something different – Jay for fun without responsibility, Stacy for normalcy, Tony for glory.

Lords of Dogtown is an interesting look at the start of an ever increasingly more popular part of American youth culture, but often settles for surface gloss instead of introspection.

Rated PG-13 for drug and alcohol content, sexuality, violence, language and reckless behavior – all involving teens.