Lords of Dogtown would have to be something truly special if it were going to erase memories of its non-fiction counterpart, Dogtown and Z-Boys. That's not to imply that Stacy Peralta's lively 2002 documentary is a flawless masterpiece. Like the new Hollywood version (which Peralta scripted), Dogtown and Z-Boys is reluctant to really explore the darker side of the '70s skateboarding phenomenon-the broken friendships, the inevitable corporate takeover of a supposedly outsider sport-preferring instead to focus on the more uplifting "rags-to-riches" aspect of the story. The real reason the documentary remains superior is that it's filled with home movies and photos from the 1970s that shows the actual skaters doing their thing in empty swimming pools and head-to-head competitions. No matter how well the young actors in Lords of Dogtown ape their moves (and, to this skateboard novice anyway, they seem to acquit themselves quite well), it's still more exciting to watch the real footage than a recreation.

Despite this insurmountable obstacle, Lords of Dogtown is still a modestly entertaining movie, thanks largely to the efforts of director Catherine Hardwicke and the three leads. A production designer turned filmmaker, Hardwicke made her directorial debut with the overrated pre-teens-in-trouble vehicle, Thirteen. While that film started strong only to descend into exaggerated hysteria, Hardwicke's propulsive direction stood out the whole way through. She brings the same energy to Dogtown, shooting much of the action handheld and keeping the camera low to the ground during the skateboard sequences to capture the skaters' speed and agility.

Hardwicke knows how to draw good performances out of her young actors as well. Emile Hirsch (The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys), Victor Rasuk (Raising Victor Vargas) and John Robinson (Elephant) all do fine work here, even if the script doesn't give them a lot of varied emotions to play. Peralta essentially assigns each character a single personality that they maintain throughout the movie. Rasuk is the selfish hothead Tony Alva, Hirsch is the troubled Jay Adams, and Robinson plays Peralta himself as a slightly dorky straight-arrow. It would be interesting to know how the real Alva and Adams feel about Peralta's depiction of them in the film, particularly in the section that deals with the boys' deteriorating friendship once their hobby turns into a high-paying job. The movie would have us believe that they were able to get over their disagreements with relative ease. Perhaps the wounds are still fresh or, more likely, Peralta wanted to refrain from opening them again.

Overall, most of the film's problems stem from the screenplay, which works too hard to mold the real story into a conventional three-act structure. In a welcome move, Peralta does delve into the home life of the different skaters, something that his documentary declined to explore in much detail. Unfortunately, a lot of these scenes consist of routine teen melodrama; Alva clashes with his strict dad, while Adams tries to look after his irresponsible hippie mother (Rebecca De Mornay). There's also an unnecessary subplot involving a love triangle between Alva's sister Kathy (Nikki Reed) and Peralta and Adams that was invented for the film.

Much more interesting are the sections that deal with the boys' relationship with their larger-than-life mentor Skip Emblem (Heath Ledger), the owner of the Zephyr surf shop that was ground zero for the Z-Boys revolution. Although Ledger's wild-eyed performance often comes dangerously close to camp, his increasing desperation as he watches his own team outgrow him rings true. One wishes that Peralta had chosen to mine this territory in more detail. Did the Z-Boys sell out by signing with bigger corporations? And how did the increased exposure really affect their friendship? These are questions that could fuel an interesting documentary or feature film. Too bad Peralta has danced around them on both occasions.
-Ethan Alter