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Movie Review

This thinly fictionalized account of the rise of skateboarding is built around the sport’s first “rock star” heroes: Jay Adams, Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta. The setting? Dogtown, a rundown section of Venice Beach, Calif., in the mid-1970s, before the area becomes the gentrified home of movie stars and rich surfer dudes. Teenagers Jay, Tony and Stacy are best friends from working class families who live to surf at the Pacific Ocean Park pier—when the big boys will let them, that is. In the meantime, they make do with skateboarding.

As the story unfolds, two seemingly disparate events are ready to revolutionize skateboarding: the invention of the urethane wheel and a persistent drought in Southern California. The drought means a lot of empty swimming pools whose curved concrete walls are just waiting to be “surfed” as one would surf a wave—courtesy of urethane wheels, which grip concrete much better than other types of wheels used at the time.

With empty pools as their canvas, the Z-Boys, so-named because of their sponsorship by Skip Engblom’s Zephyr Surf Shop, invent a radically new form of skating that combines a fast, aggressive style with death-defying stunts. After being featured in SkateBoarder magazine, the Z-Boys become overnight sensations and the champions of a lifestyle that becomes a worldwide countercultural phenomenon.

With fame comes sponsorships, girls and money. What had been an afternoon hobby grows into big business.

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Positive Elements

Despite the tensions that come with fame and money, the friends never completely give up on each other. And all the boys are supportive of another friend, Sid, when he is stricken with brain cancer. Stacy, who is the only one who has a job, shows a strong sense of responsibility and loyalty, and refuses to bail out on Skip. Jay wants to cash in only to get money to support his mom.

Although Tony’s dad is usually abusive, he does offer words of support when Tony is feeling despondent over an injury. As a backdoor way of emphasizing the importance of loving fathers and stable families, the two boys with the most problems either have no father (Jay) or an abusive dad (Tony). In fact, Jay has two strikes against him, since his mom, Philaine, is a stoner surfer dudette who is often more irresponsible than he. Significantly, Jay is the most psychologically troubled of the boys.

Spiritual Content

Before a skating competition Skip asks which of his team members has bad karma. After having sex Sid says, “I just found God.” The Jimi Hendrix song “Voodoo Chile” plays under the opening sequence.

Sexual Content

Contemplating fame, Tony says, “I want to get laid every night.” And indeed, sex has a lot to do with the culture the Z-Boys help create. The movie features more than its fair share of sexual images, jokes and slang. When a girl nicked-named Thunder Monkey seduces Sid at a party, for instance, he unzips her blouse to reveal her bra. Later, his friends congratulate him for having sex with her. Stacy asks a girl if she wants to “blow” him. (Her response is maybe.)

Tony’s family is so poor that he and his teenage sister, Kathy, must share a bedroom in their modest house, but that doesn’t stop them from bringing sexual partners in at the same time. We see the girls stripped down to their underwear, and Kathy tells Jay to remove his boxers before pulling him under the sheets. We see both couples kissing and making sexual movements beneath the covers.

Tony autographs a girl’s breast (she's wearing a bra) and another girl’s bare leg (close to her rear). Many scenes include girls in bikini tops and short shorts. Once such barely clothed girl crawls onto Tony’s lap as they kiss. Hoping to impress a girl, Sid puts a banana down the front of his pants.

We see Jay’s mom in bed with her live-in boyfriend. Sid makes a joke about Jay’s mom’s breasts (complete with groping motion), and Jay jokes that he’ll let Sid have sex with her. Among other sexually charged classic rock songs played in the background, Foghat cranks out the lyrics “I just want to make love to you." A member of a promoter’s entourage is a flamboyant transvestite. Tony makes a joke about Jay’s pubic hair.

Violent Content

Lots of graphic skateboard wipeouts and one cringe-inducing surfing wipeout—right into a pier piling. Several fistfights figure into the story, with punches to the face and kicks to the torso. Unhappy with a skateboarding judge’s ruling, Tony punches the man square in the face. In a later competition Tony is punched so hard in the eye he requires surgery. After being beaten up, Jay clobbers a man over the head with a skateboard, knocking him out. A man is thrown through a plate-glass window. A man chases the boys with a golf club; they in turn hit him in the face with a piece of fruit.

In a fit of rage after another father figure walks out on him, Jay slashes the surfboard he’d given him with a knife and then smashes it to pieces. In a drunken rage, Skip hurls surfboards from the roof of his shop.

Crude or Profane Language

Thirty-plus uses of the s-word, including one in subtitles. “A--“ and “a--hole” are used nearly 20 times; “h---“ and “d---“ appear about five times, along with sexual and anatomical slang. A song by the band Nazareth features the line “Now you’re messing with a son of a b--ch.” God's and Jesus’ names are misused close to 10 times.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Surf-shop owner Skip is an alcoholic and almost always has a drink in his hand, whether it’s a beer bottle, a blender-mixed tropical drink or a whole bottle of booze disguised in a brown paper bag. Sometimes he doesn’t even bother with the paper bag. Many other characters (some of them teens) drink at parties. (The legal drinking age was 18 during the events of this movie, but some of the characters are still in high school, which means they are probably still underage.) Philaine throws a drinking party at her house, and Jay brings her a six-pack of beer. Stacy’s father downs a mixed drink, saying, “They told us to preserve water.”

After a nasty spill off his skateboard, Sid pops a marijuana joint into his mouth. Later, he is stricken with brain cancer, and his nurse gives him what he says is doctor-prescribed marijuana. (That doesn’t stop him from sharing it with his healthy friends.) A man keeps a pot plant in his apartment. Tony’s shady promoter tells him he has all the “meds” he needs to treat Tony’s injured eye. Numerous characters smoke cigarettes, and in one scene Tony smokes a fat stogie.

Other Negative Elements

Skip, the alleged adult among the Z-Boys, induces the teens to try all sorts of illegal and irresponsible behavior, at one point joking, “I thought we’re supposed to keep them out of trouble.” Skip and the boys get into a fight with a restaurant manager, and Skip bribes a guard to allow them to skip to the front of a long line. (He then cheats the man.) He also steals food from a convenience store. Jay steals gas from a gas station.

Tony skates in and out of moving traffic and then times a long downhill run so that he enters a busy intersection at the same moment the light turns green. (A car has to screech to a halt to avoid hitting him.) He also vandalizes cars as he skates past them. The boys grab on to the rear of a city bus while on their skateboards. And they break into people’s yards to skate in their empty swimming pools. At one house they break the diving board because it interferes with their skating.

The police are called “pigs.” And the boys and their friends refuse to stop for the police; one knocks over an officer as he flees. Jay shouts sexual taunts at two old women as he drives past.

Conclusion

Skateboarding requires incredible athleticism and physical coordination, and there’s no doubt that the Z-Boys were all gifted athletes. Indeed, assuming one wears the proper protective gear (helmet, knee and elbow pads, and wrist guards) skateboarding is something most parents could easily encourage.

Unfortunately, along with the athletic side of the sport can come a dark under-culture of drugs, sex and antisocial behavior. And much of that can be traced directly to the milieu these boys came out of—Dogtown.

What happened to the Z-Boys after they put this sport on the map? Alva apparently never outgrew his adolescent attitude problems. In a 1995 interview with skateboarding magazine Heckler, he said, “Defy authority. Don’t let people tell you how to run your life.” He and Peralta went on to become pros and start their own companies catering to the ‘boarding culture. Peralta is credited with discovering Tony Hawk. (He is also a filmmaker and wrote the screenplay for this movie.) Adams did jail time for drugs and never really cashed in on his fame, although many credit him with inventing a lot of the maneuvers used today.

And what of their movie? Lords of Dogtown neatly captures a precise moment in American culture that reverberates to this day. That's not praise. That's a problem.

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