‘Dogtown and Z-Boys’: THR’s 2001 Sundance Film Festival Review

On Jan. 19, 2001, Stacy Peralta’s skateboarding documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys lit up the Sundance Film Festival, going on to earn multiple honors in Park City and, later, a feature film treatment, Lords of Dogtown. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:

Where the debris meets the sea, that’s the tight scope on Dogtown and Z-Boys. It’s a wild ride with eight boarders from Venice Beach, Calif., that was a deserved co-winner of the Audience Award for documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival. Director Stacy Peralta also deservedly garnered the director honor in the documentary category.

More from The Hollywood Reporter

Carved through the waves and asphalt of Venice, Dogtown follows the daring exploits of a tight-‘n’-tough band of wayward teens, outsiders who assaulted the softblue world of ’70s surfing. Hardened from single-parent homes and charged with pent-up energies, they took to the waves with a take-no-prisoners style.

At its best, Dogtown is a rip-turning portrait of eight unruly, proud kids who took on a status quo and pushed it into new directions and, in the most glorious of ironies, ultimately had the sporting establishment come lapping after them with big dollars. Sound like a great basis for a feature film? Well, we give that idea to you, compliments of this beneficent publication.

In the film’s cheeky and brainy narration, swaggeringly delivered by Sean Penn in the style of a demented cultural anthropologist, we’re dumped down near the street corner of Bay and Main in Venice in the mid-1970s.

We see a “Mad Max” world of decrepit roller coasters, boarded-up businesses and sinking piers. We see how Venice, south Santa Monica and Ocean Park have degenerated from their early-century glory, when the beaches were kind of a West Coast Coney Island, crested with an old-world sophistication and burst ing with middle-class energies.

Our Venice 8 drive no woodies, have no suburban families and don’t dress in cool Beach Boys regalia, but then they never meant to fit in to that Surf City world anyway. Getting their boards from an eccentric, hard-eyed designer-surfer, whose designs and glaring urban paint jobs clashed with the cozy-jock sport, the hard-scrabble group conquered that uninviting shoreline, dominating the waves and their peers with a berserk bravado and style — Oakland Raiders on the beach.

No poseurs, they were outcasts or outlaws given to petty crime and surviving. When the waves were too calm for their aggressive energies, they took to skateboards (not in style at the time) and pummeled the asphalt with the same raw disdain.

Although many of this year’s Sundancers were in diapers at the time, one can recall the great water droughts in Southern California of the mid-1970s, when restaurants stopped giving it out and pools dried up — a time when these kids took the awful conditions and made the best of them. While Angelenos moaned about their lack of sprinkling water, the eight saw it as a great opportunity and soon discovered that the Beverly Hillsies’ empty pools had challenging contours — curves that they couldn’t always find in their pavement and side walk, downscale Venice world.

So they crammed into the back of their battered mini-truck and headed for Beverly Hills, scouring from the back alleys, finding drained pools, hopping the walls and then gloriously riding that wealthy concrete to their highest lucks. Trespassing, evading cops, rimming on the edges it was a great time. They did all this glorious stuff in the dog days of August, and to them, L.A. was “Dogtown.”

Invariably, mainstream society caught up with their enthusiasm for asphalt boarding. With the invention of the urethane wheel (which didn’t lock when you hit a pebble), skateboarding reached new heights: Corporations sponsored tournaments and, in some of the film’s most entertaining and ironic segments, the Zephyr Team, aka the Z-Boys, bring their take-no-prisoners swagger and aggressive surfstyle boarding to the tournaments.

With their high-flying, acrobatic ascents — like their snowboarding descendants training up here at Park City for the upcoming Olympics — Zephyr was on a whole other plane from their straight-up-and-down competitors. Their brash swagger and unpolished manner was, not surprisingly, widely appealing. The Z-Boys became notorious and famous, dominating the covers of Skateboard magazine, the boarder’s equivalent of Rolling Stone and the 7-Elevens’ largest seller of the day.

As one of the Z-Boys comments in the film, “It would be like today if some corporation gave a kid $10,000 and said, ‘Use it to paint graffiti wherever you want.’ ” In their world, they were rock stars.

As with most groups that hit it big, the Z-Boys suffered casualties, namely their most naturally gifted member, Jay Adams, whose California-kid looks and out-there style made him the Michael Jordan of the pavement. Adams had an acrobatic artistry; he would whip, skim and fly into the most graceful and unbelievable contortions, intentionally putting himself into a position where he couldn’t complete the maneuver, and then, at the splitsecond he was headed for a crash, he would right himself with some never-before-seen movement. The long-haired blond’s moves are easily Dogtown‘s skating highlights.

Adams would never do the same thing twice: He was a jazzman on urethane wheels. Unfortunately, unlike most of his peers who marketed themselves into a comfort able life, Jay Adams partied too hard and rode his success unwisely and today is incarcerated in Hawaii. In a way, that’s the guy’s inimitable, transcendent style.

As a cultural ethnography, Dogtown is distinguished. Screenwriters Peralta and Craig Stecyk have distilled the boarders’ bravado and, most gloriously, have shown how these unlikely eight, who had everything going against them, took advantage of things and by having their unapologetic good time, capsized their world.

Peralta s visuals are crisp, panoramic and insightful. Adding spin and glory to the production, Peter Pilafian’s raw, eloquent cinematography captures the ferocious poetry of these boarders’ style, while Paul Crowder’s slamming edits convey the energies and uncompromising swagger of this Venice-set boardblasting American Graffiti. — Duane Byrge, originally published on Feb. 1, 2001.

Best of The Hollywood Reporter