As long as the skateboarding rules in “Lords of Dogtown,” this saga stays close to the essential vibe of the exploits of a rag-tag Venice crew profiled in Stacy Peralta’s scintillating docu, “Dogtown and Z-Boys.” But it’s a wipeout once the pic skids into melodrama and an overly schematic sense of how success tore the group apart. That Peralta wrote the script — his first drama after a series of fine docs — will have cache among the alternative sports crowd. But will such an aud bother showing up at theaters, or will it just wait for the video?
The irony within the gang of surfers/skateboarders who hung around Skip Engblom’s Zephyr surf shop in 1975 is that, despite their refusal to follow society’s rules, they were just as easily sucked into dreams of material success as the next guy. Any dramatic re-telling has to be about more than just this, yet “Lords” remains superficial and disconcertingly conventional.
Rags-to-riches ride starts in 1975, as Stacy (John Robinson, in long blonde locks as Peralta’s younger self), Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch) and Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk) vie for space on the waves crashing dangerously close to the Pacific Ocean Park pier near Venice, Calif., a ruin of a once-splendid oceanfront amusement park. Proving themselves on the pipe to grizzled vets including Skip (Heath Ledger), the trio also leads a pack of skateboarders, applying the principles of surfing to the street.
This crucial concept of surfing culture defining skateboarding culture, so evocatively explained in Peralta’s docu, is only implied here, so that we see the natural flow from water to concrete as little more than dudes with all the time in the world pulling outrageous stunts in alleys and thoroughfares. Skip’s breakthrough is scoring some polyurethane tires that allow the guys to go vertical, and it’s hard to know who’s more excited — the Pied Piper-like Skip and his merry band, or director Catherine Hardwicke, whose cameras are right there, with bonus cutaways to p.o.v. shots from the wheel’s angle.
Hardwicke’s filmmaking deliberately recalls a loose, even agreeably sloppy style common to ’70s pics by Jerry Schatzberg and Monte Hellman about characters on the social margins. When the Zephyr team (or Z-Boys) blow away the plodding competition in a Del Mar tourney, the sequence is like a celebration of radical and sexy sports bravado winning over hearts and minds.
Piece de resistance, though, is a rollicking section devoted to the clan’s discovery of backyard pools, drained during a mid-’70s Southern California water shortage, and how the kidney shape and sharp bowl design is the perfect skating rink for some unbelievable moves (all of them superbly cut and shot to match famous photos of the time, and seamlessly blending stunt doubles and thesps).
But various personal dramas are fitfully developed, and pic’s energy dissipates. Jay’s character dominates, from his inability to hook up with Tony’s foxy sister Kathy (Nikki Reed, who debuted in Hardwicke’s “Thirteen”) to his growing alienation as Tony and Stacy cash in on their newfound fame as skateboarding stars. Peralta fails to give his autobiographical self any identity at all, except as a dude who has to prove himself to earn a spot on the squad.
As Tony, Stacy and other Zephyr kids (most of whom aren’t sketched in) land on magazine covers and score top-dollar contracts, Jay and Skip plunge into depressed stasis. Jay’s inability to parlay the Z-Boys winning streak into a pro career is a key element the film fails to explore in a satisfying way. He may be dragged down by his impoverished hippie mom Philaine (Rebecca De Mornay, in a wonderfully committed perf) more a friend than a mother, but at least he has her support — which is more than can be said for Tony, whose father (Julio Oscar Mechoso) is a nearly comical stereotype of the brutalizing macho Latino patriarch.
With so little to draw from their written characters, Hirsch, Robinson, Rasuk and Michael Angarano as team mascot and hearing-impaired weakling Sid, impose their own sense of youthful desire and anger to the episodic events. Nearly unrecognizable at first, Ledger’s Skip goes from gruff stoner boss to a pathetic shell of a man, but the change isn’t always convincing. Giving the pic life when it needs it most is a blond-haired Johnny Knoxville as flashy impresario Topper Burks.
Grimy, rough working-class beach hoods are thoroughly captured by production designer Chris Gorak and Elliot Davis’ ceaselessly roving camera, guided by the same understanding of place and design that former production designer Hardwicke brought to “Thirteen.” From Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” to Neil Young’s “Old Man,” KCRW deejay and music supervisor Liza Richardson knocks herself out with a brilliant selection of period tunes.