Many films embrace nostalgia, but few are swallowed whole by it the way Skateland is. It bends itself towards evoking the late 70s/early 80s in painstaking detail and then – having achieved the illusion – doesn’t have the first idea what to do with it. It mistakes pointless meandering for slow meditation, spinning a single dramatic event into an endless stumble through parties, parking lots and rehashed American Graffiti tropes in a vain effort to evoke a specific mood. Hit the jump for my full review of Skateland on Blu-ray.
The story (if that’s the right term) takes place in a small Texas town in 1983. An apparent disconnect occurs very early on between the overall look (which matches that of the late 70s) and time-specific cues like MTV on one character’s television. The seeming incongruity actually serves to subtly invoke a place out of touch: still living on long-past glory days and uncertain how to move beyond them. On a more superficial level, it paints a very pretty picture, with gorgeous cinematography by Peter Simonite and costume design that clearly adores the era. Pity it has nothing more than that to offer.
The story centers on a young man named Ritchie (Shiloh Fernandez), out of high school and wondering what to do with his life. He hangs out with his friends at various soirees and the titular skating rink: a popular hangout in the area. His friend Brent (Heath Freeman) arrives in town after a tour on the professional motocross circuit, rekindling their bond and bringing Ritchie to the attention of Brent’s pretty sister Michelle (Ashley Greene). They swap stories, get drunk, have multiple run-ins with a group of local punks, and generally revel in their fleeting youth.
Director Anthony Burns tosses periodic developments into the mix: Ritchie’s folks get a divorce, the skating rink closes, the groups’ rivals make vaguely threatening noises of the West Side Story variety, etc. But as soon as a new twist arises, Skateland immediately passes it over for more pointless wandering, letting its dramatic bite wither on the vine time and again. That would be more forgivable if the characters were more engaging, but they appear just as vague and rootless as the town they inhabit. Ritchie loves the skate park and seems to have a knack for writing, but we rarely see how he applies it. Brent works hard to impress everyone with his motocross credentials, but we never feel the sense of loss or pathos that they’re intended to convey. In too many cases, the atmosphere overwhelms the performers. We see retro T-shirts and feathered hair instead of the people behind them, turning the characters into little more than moving props.
Without that all-important link, we cannot connect to the feeling the filmmakers wish to evoke. We’re left with a 90-minute album cover: sleek and superficial but with absolutely no substance underneath. The soundtrack is awesome, the figures onscreen revel in their youth, but all they do is remind us of other, better movies that played this hand much more succinctly. Its hard-earned sense of place simply redirects attention to the likes of American Graffitti or The Outsiders, rather than providing any compelling reasons of its own to watch. The film ends with a memorium to John Hughes, someone who knew more about nostalgia and growing up than an effort like this can ever achieve. It means well and tries hard, but you can only get so far on image; a pity its creators don’t learn that lesson the way their characters do.