Skateboarding first appeared in pop culture as a fleeting fad, something surfers did when they couldn’t hit the waves and kids did when their neighborhoods lacked an ocean. Its second coming in the 1970s established it as an extreme sport, with much of the credit for its popularity given to the Z-Boys. The early twenty-first century saw two cinematic celebrations of these pioneers of a skating style: a documentary in 2001, and this drama from 2005.

The film follows the template created by the superior documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys. Despite that fact that Z-Boy Stacy Peralta penned the script, the movie creates precious little sense of the characters. We get moments: adolescents escaping dreary homes to skate industrial landscapes; Tony Alva and his sister high-fiving over their respective sexual conquests. I cannot decide if Heath Ledger‘s performance as stoned skate mentor Skip is brilliant or bad; the man may have been that over-the-top in real life.

The film, "inspired by a true story," makes a number of changes to history. Most significantly, it features Sid. Sid plays as comic relief, everyone’s goofy kid brother. He has a strange balance problem which the others mock, and which we later realize is the earliest symptom of the brain tumor that will kill him. Sid (minus a last name) is one of the characters who receives a "where are they now" epigram or, in his case, epitaph at film’s end. Thing is, Sid didn’t exist. He's a composite of actual Z-Boys and Dino, an acquaintance who died from brain cancer. Dino, in his final days, did as Sid does in the film: convinces his father to let the Z-Boys skate in their drained pool. Photographs of these Dogbowl Sessions came to represents the skaters’ heyday. It’s an interesting dramatic choice, almost as if Peralta, despite having lived the life and made a documentary on the subject, did not feel the story had enough narrative power to carry this movie. Rather than truly delve with any real depth into the commercial and personal forces that separated the team, he creates someone to give the movie a narrative thread. It seems forced. It’s also hard to imagine Sid, as portrayed here, actually riding with the Z-Boys.

The film shows the consequences of the unbalanced lives led by some of these characters, while depicting screenwriter Peralta, the one member clearly uncomfortable with petty crime and boorish behavior, with curious restraint. At the same time, the film wants its kiddie street cred, and it revels in the obnoxious adolescent shenanigans of the Z-Boys and their mentors, effectively advocating the very behavior with which many teen skaters complain they are unfairly associated. Most of this behavior, however, is casual and petty. The film has to maintain accessibility to its core audience, and much more is implied than graphically shown.

Director Catherine Hardwicke has crafted as impressive a visual recreation of the 70s as I’ve seen anywhere. We experience not only the general trends and styles of the era, but the specific world which birthed the Z-Boys. The shots of apocalyptic Pacific Ocean Pier showcase the decayed urban landscape that inspired modern skateboarding. We move through a world that most of us know only from still shots and distant footage.

Lords of Dogtown, like its titular characters, does have style. The frenetic camerawork and moving shots capture the speed and danger of the skater’s world. The movie works as a visceral experience, a roller coaster rather than a drama. It’s enough to satisfy fans of the subject, but it only just passes as a drama.

Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Writer: Stacy Peralta

John Robinson...Stacy Peralta
Victor Rasuk...Tony Alva
Emile Hirsh...Jay Adams
Michael Angarano...Sid
Heath Ledger...Skip
Vincent Laresca...Chino
Nikki Reed...Kathy Alva
William Mapother...Donnie
Eldon Henson...Billy Z
Pablo Schreiber...Stecyk
Cheyne Magnusson...Mad Dog
Stephane Limb...Peggy Oki
Rebecca De Mornay...Philaine
Don Nguyen...Shogo
Jonny Noxville...Topper Burks
Tony Hawk...astronaut

In short: not as good as the documentary, but likely better than the musical you just know someone's going to make some day.