In sports, there are moments when one witnesses what should be impossible--feats that have never been achieved before but will be again and again, only to be taken to the next level. It's this sense of discovery, the excitement of experimentation, that helmer Catherine Hardwicke captures in this '70s-set coming-of-ager about the Z-Boys of Dogtown, who were the first to realize that they could surf asphalt.
Based on a 1999 Spin article, which also spawned an award-winning documentary by screenwriter Stacy Peralta, "Lords of Dogtown" recounts the serendipitous convergence of polyurethane skateboard wheels and a Southern California drought that drains the area's backyard swimming pools, inspiring surf rats Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), Peralta himself (John Robinson) and Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch) to ride walls like waves. Low to the ground, one hand outstretched, their style--aggressive yet agile--launches a whole new industry, laying the foundation for the X Games, and propels the Z-Boys to rock-star celebritydom. But eventually the constant competition wreaks havoc on their relationships, splitting up the Zephyr team and leading each of the boys to very different ends.
For purposes of narrative, Alva, Peralta and Adams represent three disparate trajectories of experience. Alva, who choreographed stunts and served as his own character's stunt double on the film, is the most ambitious of the three, but it's the cherubic Peralta who best markets himself. Acknowledged as the most talented, Adams is also the most self-destructive, a risk-taker who revolutionizes the sport but is unable to conform to please his sponsors. Think of it this way: Alva is to Jimi Hendrix as Peralta is to disco as Adams is to the Sex Pistols.
Ample footage of the skaters from the era, familiar to fans of the doc "Dogtown and Z-Boys," poses a challenge for casting, but virtual unknowns Rasuk ("Raising Victor Vargas") and Robinson ("Elephant") are not only talented up-and-comers--proverbial "ones to watch"--but dead ringers for their real-life counterparts. Superficially, Hirsch is less convincing, skewing a bit older than Adams was at the time, but he here he blends unpredictability, gravity and a feline physicality for a complex portrait of a troubled young man. The 20-year-old actor (yes, the kid from "The Girl Next Door," but also "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys") has crafted an intriguing oeuvre and could carve a career akin to that of Leonardo DiCaprio, whom he sometimes resembles. Meanwhile, channeling Val Kilmer is Heath Ledger in a nuanced portrait of Skip Engblom, team founder and surrogate father until fame and fortune lures his proteges away.
Aside from some lost momentum in the third act and extraneous romantic entanglements that, while based on fact, are transparent in their attempt to amp the pic's sex appeal, "Lords of Dogtown" is deftly filmed by "Thirteen's" Hardwicke and cinematographer Elliot Davis. Using desaturated tones, the filmmakers employ handheld camerawork, tightly framed close-ups and kinetic cuts for a fluid, aggressive, punk-ass style that captures the energy of that singular moment in sports history. Starring Emile Hirsch, Victor Rasuk, Heath Ledger and John Robinson. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Written by Stacy Peralta. Produced by Art Linson and John Linson. A Columbia release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for drug and alcohol content, sexuality, violence, language and reckless behavior, all involving teens. Running time: 105 min.