American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
In the summer of 1975, modern skateboarding was invented in the Santa Monica and Venice Beach areas of California. The young members of the Zephyr Team, sponsored by a permanently stoned surfboard store owner, revolutionized the sport, performing acrobatics and crazy stunts on skateboards that had until then been seen as fancy scooters. They became famous, they made a lot of money, they grew up, and one of them, Stacy Peralta, made a 2001 documentary about them named "Dogtown and Z-Boys."
It was a good documentary. As I wrote at the time, it answers a question I have long been curious about: How and why was the first skateboarder inspired to go aerial, to break contact with any surface and do acrobatics in mid-air? Consider that the pioneer was doing this for the very first time over a vertical drop of perhaps 15 feet to a concrete surface. It's not the sort of thing you try out of idle curiosity.
Now we have "Lords of Dogtown," a fiction film based on the very same material and indeed written by Peralta. Not only is there no need for this movie, but its weaknesses underline the strength of the doc. How and why Peralta found so much old footage of skateboarding in 1975 is a mystery, but he was able to give us a good sense of those kids at that time. Although Catherine Hardwicke, the director of "Lords of Dogtown," has a good sense for the period and does what she can with her actors, we've seen the originals, and these aren't the originals. Nobody in the fiction film pulls off stunts as spectacular as those we see for real in the documentary.
The story line remains the same. The kids live in what was then one of the remaining beachfront slums, down the coast from the expensive Malibu area. The beach was ruled by surfers, but in the afternoon, when the waves died down, some of the surfers, or their younger brothers, fooled around on skateboards. One day, Skip Engblom, the shop owner, comes up with a key breakthrough, polyurethane wheels: "They grip." With the additional traction, the Z-Boys try skating the sides of the big, open drainage canal that runs through the area. Then comes a brainstorm: Because of a drought, the area's swimming pools were drained. The kids started "borrowing" pools when the owners weren't home, to skate the curved sides.