Lords of Dogtown (2005)

the lords of dogtown

“He’s busy competing with the sun for the center of the world.”

The Scoop: 2005 PG-13, directed by Catherine Hardwicke and starring Heath Ledger, Emile Hirsch, and Rebecca De Mornay

Tagline: They came from nothing to change everything.

Summary Capsule: In 1970s Venice, California, a group of young kids turn from surfing to skateboarding, and turn a hobby into a worldwide phenomenon

Kyle’s rating: Wow, he really is just like Val Kilmer.

Kyle’s review: Lords of Dogtown is ostensibly about the young kids who helped save skateboarding from a meandering “who can do a handstand on a skateboard while moving?” competition fate and turn it into a viable sport/lifestyle for teenage hoodlums, punks, and aimless wannabes to embrace. However, in the execution the film somehow seems to be more about the character arc of Skip Engblom (Heath Ledger) and his rise and fall as a father figure for the Zephyr skate team.

Of course, that could be because Ledger’s performance, as noted by nearly every professional critic in the United States, not only towers and overshadows all the other actors but in execution seems to be Ledger’s best attempt at a Val Kilmer impression. I mean, I’m pretty sure even if I hadn’t read 20 reviews before going to see LOD that talked about “Ledger channeling Val Kilmer,” I would have sat in my seat and been like “Whoa, it’s like Real Genius only in the 70’s!”

But maybe that’s for the best. Lords of Dogtown is based in actual fact, centering on Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), Stacy Peralta (John Robinson), Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), and friends as they face things like life in the mid-70’s in rough hometown Venice, California and a summer draught by practically living and sleeping with their skateboards, newly-enhanced with breakthrough polyurethane wheels that provide enough grip that whole worlds of concrete open up to them: mainly, vertical ones. It’s a fascinating cinematic take on what these boys encountered and presented to the world at large as they went from skating-for-fun to being sponsored by Engblom and company in competitions and subsequently changing the face of skateboarding altogether.

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who did similar stellar work with teenage subject matter in Thirteen (co-written by and starring Nikki Reed, who also stars here as Alva’s sister Kathy), Hardwicke manages to get convincing performances out of the entire cast and bring you back to southern California (specifically Venice and its beach) when it was a lot more scummy, cheap, and burned-out. It’s a fun movie to watch, and it’s fascinating stuff to realize really happened…

…but then it’s over and you can’t help but wonder “Is that it?” Similar to Thirteen, Hardwicke manages to make Dogtown feel more like a careful slice-of-life than your usual underdogs-become-winners uplifting saga, but I can’t help but wonder if something gets lost as a result. The first hour or so of Dogtown is amazing, as the main trio and their friends actually come across as a close-knit group and a love for skateboarding trumps all anyway. But once it delves into the actual competitions and the fracturing of the Zephyr skate team based on better financial and commercial opportunities coming to Alva, Peralta, and Adams, the film cuts any emotional ties it had with the audience and gets aloof. I bet that had to do with the screenplay by Peralta, who manages to make the reel versions of himself, Alva, and Adams untouchably mythical yet comfortably complex. Adams goes twitchy and antisocial, Peralta goes big-time though considerate, and Alva goes big-time and makes sure everyone knows it. Still, all three get a “final reel” chance to show their hearts are in the right place thanks to the health problems of an old mutual friend, so the movie ends on a happily upbeat note. Even if one of the Z-Boys’ current situation sounds a little rough.

Why did I mention it might have been for the best that Ledger overshadows everyone else? Well, other than disapproving fathers, disapproving authority figures, and sketchy skateboard company men, we’re focused on Skip, our main trio of Z-Boys, and their skating friends. And while Hirsch, Robinson, and Rasuk do an excellent job of bringing their characters into being, we don’t get much of an opportunity to really get inside their heads. What’s motivating them is fairly obvious (Adams changes most and with the least clear motivations, though Hirsch expertly uses twitches and wide-eyed facial expressions to really sell his transformation), but I think Peralta went easy on really humanizing the trio so we wouldn’t be sucked into the usual condemnations and sympathies; probably a good idea since *spoiler* two characters essentially sell out and the other apparently turns to a fully-criminal lifestyle. *end spoiler* But rather than be left totally in the cold, Ledger’s Kilmer-impression is always dramatic and always draws your attention, effectively performing as the barometer for success and failure, set against these kids. Does that make sense?

Actually, I can pontificate and analyze all I want, but you’ve probably already made up your mind whether or not to see this movie based on the subject matter alone. If you’re pro-skateboarding, you’re going (you probably saw Grind, too, didn’t you? It wasn’t too bad, was it? I mean, it was, but sorta fun, too). If you’re anti-skateboarding, you’re not. Living here in SoCal, I’ve seen this movie coming for a really long time; multiple magazine articles peaked my interest, and endless posters plastered on every beach trash can I’ve encountered for the last two months reminded me “June 3: Lords of Dogtown.” It seems like I had the release date for LOD memorized long before I knew when Star Wars was coming out. Shocking, no?

It’s a fun movie. I can honestly say that. I think what a lot of critics will try to tell you, though, is that you’re much better off watching the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, which is also written by Peralta and directed by him, too. I haven’t seen all of it: trying to see it in a theater in Newport, then rent it, and then attempt (repeatedly) to tape it off of IFC over the past four years has resulted in an ongoing comedy of errors that would probably also make a really good movie. What I have seen of it has been good, and I bet the documentary has at least a little with Z-Girl Peggy Oki (her LOD incarnation [Stephanie Limb] is basically window dressing), which makes it worthwhile viewing in my book. I love skater girls. If you dig documentaries, definitely go for Dogtown and Z-Boys and then decide if you’d like to see a cinematic interpretation of the material. If documentaries aren’t your thing, LOD is enough fun to warrant the cost of the ticket. And if skateboarding isn’t your thing at all, why have you even read this far?

The history of skateboarding is actually pretty fascinating, and its cultural impact is staggering (just hit the nearest mall: you’ll see). While it might have been nice to get a movie that approached its polyurethane-infused renaissance with the Seabiscuit-like reverence, maybe Hardwicke’s approach ultimately was the best way to go. The events depicted here were hugely influential for thousands of people but for these kids who lived them, it was just a life doing what they knew and loved. We see them as the Lords of Dogtown, they saw themselves as living real lives. And real life doesn’t often adhere to Hollywood’s three-act formula, except when it comes to boxing, I guess. Keep on grinding, people.

Eat Marty McFly's dust, dude
Eat Marty McFly’s dust, dude


  • The documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys pretty much covers all the events in Lords of Dogtown and is narrated by Sean Penn (!). Rather than choose one over the other, though, it’s probably best to just see both and enjoy the history lesson.
  • Originally David Fincher and the other producers hired Fincher “protege” Fred Durst to direct “Dogtown,” with Fincher helping out with the second unit skateboarding scenes. As Durst’s participation came into doubt, Fincher then became the director, even going as far as having sets built, doing extensive pre-visualizations for the feature and hiring Roger Avary to rewrite the script. Fincher then left to take on another feature, paving the way for former production designer Catherine Hardwicke to sign on based on the success of her first feature Thirteen.
  • While filming a scene in an empty pool, director Catherine Hardwicke fell and was knocked unconscious for two minutes. Many of the cast and crew thought she had died. When she came to, the pro-skaters there said “Now you know how it feels. Welcome to the club.”
  • When I (Kyle) went to see this film, it was the 4:30 p.m. opening day showing, so I knew it was going to be packed with kids. And it was; the ticket line was full of kids carrying their skateboards, though I don’t know if management let them bring their boards into the theater or if they made them stash them somewhere. More importantly, though there was plenty of snickering and cell phone play during the previews, everyone was extremely well-behaved and enraptured by the film, so I wasn’t bothered at all by even a hint of talking. Very impressive! There was even some enthusiastic clapping at the end, so I guess there’s hope for theater audiences of the future after all!
  • That’s skateboard legend Tony Hawk as an astronaut who doesn’t seem to skate very well (must be the moon boots)
  • Is It Worth Staying Through End Credits? I (Kyle) didn’t stay for all of them. But the music is cool and next to the scrolling credits clips of the actors skating and fooling around play, and those are fun to watch. Sure, stay, let the crowds disperse!

Groovy Quotes

Stacy: So, what’s up with Tony? You guys still skate with him?
Jay: He’s busy competing with the sun for the center of the world.

Jay: Stacy looks like a stock car.

Jay: Dude, you just got patty slapped.

Sid: [as the Z-Boys drive by two elderly women on the street] Kiss me, granny!

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Grind
  • Dogtown and Z-Boys
  • Thirteen


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