Skateland (2010) dir. Anthony Burns
Starring: Shiloh Fernandez, Ashley Greene, Heath Freeman, Brett Cullen
By Alan Bacchus
Skateland plays like a more genuine Adventureland. The similarities are there, as both films have amusement parks as their key locations. Both films also use the early ‘80s as the time period to express pivotal life changing moments of the lives of young people stuck between youth and adulthood and between freedom and responsibility. Yet, Skateland is able to capture a genuine poignancy about the era and thus deliver a surprisingly satisfying and lingering coming-of-age drama.
It’s the early ‘80s and Ritchie Wheeler (Shiloh Fernandez) is a customer service manager at the local Skateland roller rink in Austin, Texas, which, like in The Last Picture Show, is about to be shut down. Ritchie spends his days rollerskating, drinking, hanging with friends and doing all the other activities people do during their senior year in high school. But Ritchie has graduated, and he’s still without a distinct path in life. He’s a great writer though, and even with encouragement from his supporting little sister, he still won’t commit to his future.
Arriving back in town after a shortened career racing motorcycles is Ritchie’s old buddy Brent Burkham (Heath Freeman), a big man on campus – he’s a confident and cocky playboy and the supreme guys’ guy. But he’s been courting a new girl, who happens to be the ex of the leader of a group of dickwad assholes. Periodically, this group called the Four Horseman confronts Brent and Ritchie looking to start a fight. Meanwhile, Ritchie develops a relationship with Brent’s sister, who encourages him to make plans and realize his full potential. Over the course of the summer Ritchie weighs his options and ponders life’s new possibilities.
We’ve been bombarded with ‘80s nostalgia throughout this past decade, and so Skateland would appear to have jumped the shark as yet another attempt by the filmmaker to ‘write about what he knows’. But somehow Burns manages to surmount all the clichés inherent in his conventional plotting.
Burns’ biggest aid is newbie lenser Peter Simonte’s luscious super 35 mm cinematography. It’s so well lit and shot we expect to see high profile and recognizable actors underneath the beautifying light. But nope – Burns has a bunch of no-namers, all of whom do more than just hit their marks, as they bring a kind of freshness we didn‘t get from Adventureland.
What‘s refreshing is Burns’ classical composition and minimalist editing philosophy, a style harkening back to the 1960s when scenes would play out in wide shots without cutting in for traditional coverage. Burns trusts his actors to play a scene and get the proper timing and rhythm of the picture without the need for excessive editing. As such, our eyes are allowed to relax and our brains are less strained, which contributes to the laid back, languid enjoyability of the film.
Burns’ score, as expected, belts out a mix of ‘80s pop classics from Blondie to Queen, as well as some lesser known one-hit wonders to get your foot tapping. He’s not afraid to overload his music on us if it accurately expresses the inner emotional state of the character. Take the finale for instance, as Burns holds for a lengthy walking steady cam shot of Ritchie walking through the mall to find Michelle. The Modern English song ’I Melt With You’ expresses the foot tapping excitement of Ritchie as he’s about to give Michelle the good news.
Admittedly, by the mid-point of the film I questioned what it was about with its paper-thin narrative with little forward movement and minimal conflict. But I was never bored, and I cared deeply for Burns’ characters. Much like The Runaways, Skateland admirably coasts full steam ahead on a full tank of genuine nostalgia and enthusiasm for its bygone era.