SXSW FILM 2010
By Don Simpson | March 29, 2010
Director: Anthony Burns
Writers: Anthony Burns, Brandon Freeman, Heath Freeman
Starring: Ashley Greene, Shiloh Fernandez, Heath Freeman, Taylor Handley, Brett Cullen, Haley Ramm, Melinda McGraw, James LeGros, A.J. Buckley
The central story of Skateland revolves around a 19-year old – Ritchie Wheeler (Shiloh Fernandez) – who does not want to deal with life after high school. The personification of slackerdom, Ritchie is perfectly content working as a manager at the local roller-skating rink – Skateland – and drinking with his buddies every night. Essentially, Ritchie is stuck in the developmental limbo of East Texas circa 1983. (Though not politically motivated, Skateland does effectively reflect the changing mindset of America’s suburban middle class at the end of the recession.)
Working at Skateland is a totally sweet gig – flirting with girls, roller-skating, chatting with friends – but unfortunately, it will soon be shuttering its doors and windows and becoming yet another relic of a bygone era (ala The Last Picture Show). With Skateland closing, Ritchie is forced to figure out what he should do with his life. Ritchie is presumably a great writer (we witness him studiously clicking away at his Commodore 64 on multiple occasions) and his little sister – Mary (Haley Ramm) – is very eager to see her older brother go to college and make something of his life.
Further impeding any desire to change his current trajectory in life, Ritchie’s childhood buddy Brent Burkham (Heath Freeman) moves back home after being dropped by his motor-cross racing sponsor. Brent is an uber-confident ladies man who just wants to have a good time – not all too dissimilar from Dazed and Confused’s David Wooderson (one might also recognize some similarities between Ritchie and Dazed and Confused’s Randall ‘Pink’ Floyd).
Ritchie develops a romantic relationship with Brent’s sister – Michelle (Ashley Greene) – who is eager for their relationship to mature but also encourages Ritchie to make plans to do something with his life. Michelle works at the record store in the mall – she owns crates full of seminal new wave and post-punk albums (which she flips through for our ogling pleasure). Posters of The Smiths, Depeche Mode, The Cure and The Ramones are strategically laid out around her bedroom. (It’s difficult not to notice a hint of John Hughes’ influence here.)
Soon, troubling undercurrents begin to rise to the surface…
Ritchie catches his mother – Debbie (Melinda McGraw) – in a nightclub with a man that is not his chauvinistic father – David (Brett Cullen). A true woman of the 80s, Debbie is exploring her freedom, individuality and sexuality; David – a man whose nuclear family values hearken back to the good old days – is perplexed by his wife’s modern needs. The innocent bystanders, Ritchie and Mary, watch the train wreck of their parents’ marriage eventually erupt into flames.
Brent starts dating the ex-girlfriend of the leader of the Four Horsemen (note there are only three of them) – the town’s renowned rabble rousers – and the lead Horseman is not very happy about this. Ritchie and Brent have multiple run-ins with the Four Horsemen, each one getting closer to the boiling point.
Eventually, tragedy strikes and Ritchie is propelled into finally making a life decision. He struts through the mall (to the soundtrack of Modern English’s “I Melt With You”) and into Michelle’s record store to deliver his great news and we all live happily ever after…
Skateland is a fun coming of age period piece albeit with a relatively thin narrative – there is a sheer avoidance of providing any character depth – and dialogue that is as bland as white bread. However, I am truly a sucker for a great soundtrack, kitschy set/costume design (there’s even an El Camino and Firebird) and lush cinematography – and Skateland offers all three in spades.
In fact, the biggest hurdle that Skateland will have to face in order to land a distribution deal is its soundtrack. As it stands, the existing soundtrack would at least double the entire budget of the film. And losing the current soundtrack would definitely hurt Skateland – the soundtrack is cleverly utilized as an integral part of the existing narrative structure. (Currently, Skateland is only screening at film festivals so it is enjoying the privilege of “festival rights.”)
Despite the aforementioned lack of character depth, the acting performances are all quite fun and Skateland does an excellent job portraying the changing gender roles in the early 80s. The female roles are surprisingly strong – they are motivated; they have goals and plans to reach those goals – while the males are unmotivated slackers who just want to party every night.
Other than Skateland’s resemblances to Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, there is a very prevalent John Hughes’ influence (the film is dedicated to him) – especially in the use of the soundtrack within the narrative and the comic relief of the geeky duo of Vance (Kent Jude Bernard) and Lee (Cameron Pierce). Unfortunately, Skateland lacks Linklater’s ear for rich dialogue and Hughes’ ingenious knack for creating elaborate emotional arcs for his characters. Nonetheless, it is still checking out at a festival near you!