- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2005

Stacy Peralta lovingly captured the rise of both the skateboarding and surfing subcultures in the documentaries “Dogtown and Z-Boys” and “Riding Giants,” respectively.

Now he’s sharing stories of his own ties to skateboarding’s past in a traditional dramatic format with “Lords of Dogtown.”

What figured to be a film aimed strictly at teens and skateboarding fanatics instead almost becomes a coming-of-age saga any audience demographic can savor.

“Almost” counts in only horseshoes and reality television — just ask “American Idol” runner-up Clay Aiken. These “Lords” can skate like angels, but we have a devil of a time embracing them.

It’s the mid-1970s, and a pack of neglected teens from Dogtown, a neighborhood of Venice, Calif., waste their free time palling around with a surf bum turned entrepreneur named Skip (Heath Ledger, slurring his speech like a wino).

Their bond starts paying off when Skip leverages their skateboard skills to sell his own brand of boards. The “Lords’ ” bruising style catches the tiny sport off guard initially, but they bully their way into the mainstream on the strength of talent and attitude. They begin collecting skating trophies and groupies on the way to leaving Skip’s nest for good.

“Dogtown” is another love letter from Mr. Peralta to skateboarding culture, with icons such as Tony Hawk and Tony Alva (an original Z-Boy) appearing in cameos. Perhaps the writer is too close to the subject matter for quasi-fiction. Of the three “Lords,” his Stacy remains the least defined. We learn that he had the best work ethic of the bunch and didn’t run roughshod over the ladies, but beyond that, his cinematic alter ego is a blank slate.

“The Girl Next Door’s” Emile Hirsch is the least convincing element here. Whether it’s playing the antihero or shaving his head to run with a local gang, the actor appears miscast.

Director Catherine Hardwicke, who made an auspicious debut with “Thirteen,” revisits that gritty, austere style with “Dogtown.” The approach scores in the film’s opening sequences. Her camera captures the giddy rush of skateboarding with a you-are-there intensity. Her visuals vibrate, a feat reinforced by the film’s surf-rock soundtrack.

The director quickly establishes the mood in the opening moments but fails to build from there. The perfunctory clash between the group’s rising star and his pals feels like an afterthought, not an emotional climax. And when the gooey ending goes down, we’re left staring blankly at the screen, wishing to feel something, anything.

The film’s leads all skate convincingly, and the segues between actors and stunt pros are remarkably deft.

Still, “Lords of Dogtown” appears doomed to disappoint both its potential audiences. As a teen fix, its skateboarding thrills are diluted by its storytelling ambition. Conversely, older viewers might need to pop some Dramamine during the skating acrobatics.

It’s the middle ground that Mr. Peralta seeks but ultimately fails to secure.

** 1/2

TITLE: “Lords of Dogtown”

RATING: PG-13 (Sexual situations, coarse language and drug use)

CREDITS: Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Written by Stacy Peralta.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sonypictures.

com/movies/lordsofdogtown

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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