“Skateland,” opening this Friday, is not to be confused with “Stake Land,” the horror picture released in April. Though both pictures do share one story element: both take place in desolate lands of no purchase, with protagonists trying to fight the hopelessness and malaise of their surroundings. Instead of a mutated vampiric wasteland, the setting is small-town Texas, circa 1980’s. Instead of vampires, there are asshole townies who have nothing better to occupy their time than to make life miserable for others. Instead of stakes, there are sk- oh, wait, that’s there in the title.
Ritchie Wheeler (young Joaquin Phoenix-lookalike Shiloh Fernandez) is nineteen and though his writer phase excited everyone in his youth, he’s resigned himself to staying in Texas forever, working at the local skate rink. His choices, however unadventurous, are limited, however, as it appears Skate Land is being closed. The rink, with its booming post-disco dance music, flashing lights and assortment of local friends, feels more like home to Ritchie, as there lies no domestic peace in the Wheeler household. Barely-veiled animosity has reached its breaking point, and Ritchie’s parents are getting separated.
Directionless, Ritchie turns to the older, supposedly more accomplished Brent (Heath Freeman, also the co-writer), a local who is returning home a conquering hero. His success on the driving circuit is a brief reminder that success awaits those who leave town. But then why is he back to binge drinking and “being the oldest guy at the party” territory? Pressure on the mostly-passive Ritchie increases when the girl of whom he’s fond, Michelle (Ashley Greene), announces her plans to attend college.
Basically, this is Ritchie’s story, though he’s most likely the most passive participant. The strength of “Skateland” is in the period recreation. Not only the fashions, hairstyles and music, but the vibe. The closing of Skateland is indicative of the great cultural change that inhibited the decade, the outward reach of globalization, as the area itself is being sold to developers from overseas. Ritchie is being squeezed out not just by economics, not just by the need to embrace adulthood, but also the demands of the evolving sensibilities of the country.
Which is to say that “Skateland” doesn’t offer much beyond the period pleasures, the casually-engaging performances and the lived-in local details. If Ritchie and his friends aren’t driving around town or lacing up a pair of skates, they find themselves stranded amidst a sea of barren parking lots, abandoned parks, and chintzy strip malls. Director Anthony Burns should be commended for avoiding any mocking satire of the era, as “Skateland” has a genuine affection for the small-town diversions that occupy Ritchie’s station-to-station lifestyle (while it looks and smells like an indie version of "Dazed And Confused," there's slightly more weight to it, though no, it's not as good).
“Skateland” showcases a filmmaker with a strong ear for natural conversations and a strong eye for casual composition, using space to clearly illustrate relationships that a lesser filmmaker would ignore in favor of grandstanding dialogue. Though, as a first film, his ambitions are modest - stylistically, his use of extended tracking shots and use of music recalls “Boogie Nights.” But “Skateland” never truly registers that level of pathos, and aside from an unexpected late film car crash, it lacks for genuine drama or compelling conflict. “Skateland” comforts audiences with a trip back to a place and time that should prove sweet surrender to many. It makes a helluva diorama. [B]