Skating legend Stacy Peralta takes an insider's look at the 1970s Southern California skate scene in his documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys. That era's skaters produced an attitude and lifestyle that has had a profound effect on modern American youth culture, from music to a do-it-yourself ethos (hence the movie's subtitle: A Film about the Birth of the Now). The film is both an ethnographic investigation and an historical record, and at its core is a truly human tale of how a bunch of kids who had everything going against them unintentionally created a cultural phenomenon.

The story follows a gang of young surfers who emerged in the mid-'70s from Dogtown, a rundown section of Santa Monica and Venice. These outcasts were known as Z-Boys, named for the Zephyr Surf Shop that provided them refuge. They were like the Bad News Bears--multi-ethnic, ready to fight, with one girl on the team. When the surf was low, they took their homemade skateboards to canyon playgrounds and rode the paved hills as if they were ocean waves. Then, when a drought dried up hundreds of L.A.-area swimming pools, the Z-Boys made the best of it. They crept into backyards and rode the concrete pools with a style that took the sport in a new direction.

Drawing from interviews with the original Dogtowners and a wealth of archival photographs and home movies, the film skillfully recreates the pivotal events in the Z-Boys' evolution, like the Del Mar skating competition, where they made their first public impact. At the time, skateboarding was regarded as a trick-oriented sport performed in a stiff manner by clean-cut athletes. The Z-Boys' first member to ride in the contest was wild-looking Jay Adams, who exploded with an aggressive, low-to-the-ground style. The crowd erupted with cheers as the competition looked on in disbelief. Skateboarding changed right then, and the film makes the gravity of the moment palpable.

Dogtown has an unpolished sensibility owing to Peralta's technical experimentation. Interviews are rewound in mid-sentence, leader appears intermittently, and photo stills are filmed from unconventional angles. And in one of the funniest scenes, Sean Penn, the film's narrator, flubs his voice-over and continues on. The mistake could have been left on the cutting-room floor, but in the film, it feels true to the spirit of skateboarding, like falling down and getting back up to skate. Peralta achieves a perfect union of form and content.

--Daniel Steinhart