Texas in 1983 with muscle cars, rock and roll music, feathered hair, the roller rink: these are the main ingredients in Anthony Burns' film Skateland, which feels like a lesser clone of Dazed and Confused. Burns co-wrote the script with Brandon and Heath Freeman, and Heath co-stars in one of the films better performances. Burns and crew have impressively reproduced the early 1980s without the benefit of a budget, but the problem is that the atmosphere outshadows the story.
At the crux of Skateland lies the story of two friends growing up and coming to terms with what their lives will be, Ritchie Wheeler (Shiloh Fernandez) is just finishing high school and unsure of what his next step will be, while his best buddy Brent Burkham (Heath Freeman) is on the tail end of a mediocre career as a motorcross racer, and staring down the barrel of life as a blue-collar worker. Wheeler and Burkham have known each other since they were kids, and Wheeler has also fallen into a casual relationship with Burkham's sister Michelle (Ashley Greene).
Everyone begins to feel growing pains as Burkham moves back home, off the racing circuit, and Skateland announces it will be closing its doors. This kicks most people into a different gear and on with their lives, but Wheeler seems content to sit down and watch things spiral around him, wanting to go down the drain with the everything else. He just can't picture a life beyond what he's living, and he has no plans to change that, much to the chagrin of his kid sister who is eager to see him grow up, and Michelle who wants their relationship to be more than a fling.
When Burkham returns to town, Ritchie puts everything on hold and hangs out with his buddy, content to live life on cruise control. The problem is that he's running out of road. His parents are falling out of love with each other (and it's hard to see why Shiloh remains devoted to his mom after he catches her with another man), and Burkham's fling with a girl who has a very angry ex-boyfriend with two henchmen threatens to put a kibosh on the summer fun, and when you toss in fact that Skateland will be closing forever, it's a trinity of bad news.
The problem is that none of these "problems" add up to any sort of character development for Ritchie. We're meant to empathize with Wheeler and hope that despite his dysfunctional family and his spinning-their-wheels friends, he'll eventually see the light and reach for a world beyond his own. We continually see him banging away at some unseen and unheard paper, Doogie Howser style on a Commodore 64. Plus, in the opening scene the camera pans past several writing awards that he's won. In fact, a key part of the plot hinges on a couple of lines about an essay he'd written previous called "Skateland."
We're hammered over the head that he's supposed to be a writer, yet he still sloths himself through life like a lunkhead. There's literally nothing else in the film to suggest that he even enjoys writing. In fact, even though the film is called Skateland, barely any of the action revolves around that location, either inside or outside. We see it peripherally, but not how it really affected Ritchie's life. And that famous Skateland essay? It goes unheard for the entire film. What was it that was so critical about this place? Why structure your movie around it, only to skirt the issue?
Burns and his crew did a bang-up job recreating 1983. The look and feel of it falls straight off the screen and lands in your lap. The clothes, the cars, the attitudes ... the only problem is the music. It's like a PA ran into a record shop, bought the very first "Greatest Hits of the 1980s" CD he could find, and they used it track for track throughout the movie. There are no real musical surprises here, and it's everything you've ever heard in any 80s movie before. Why not branch out and choose a few esoteric cuts for the soundtrack? The tracks they chose are going to cost a fortune anyhow, so it would have been nice to see them mix it up.
This is a first feature for Anthony Burns, and while the look and some of the performances (Heath Freeman, Ashley Greene), are extremely impressive for a small budget, Ritchie's flat character arc just can't cut it. A decent first effort, but we'd like to see something more from this director.