Film Review: Skateland

The filmmakers seem to want to look back at the 1980s and weep, and you may feel the same way, having wasted your time watching this.

It's East Texas in the 1980s, and the local roller rink, Skateland, is closing down. No one will really miss it much except for its manager, Ritchie Wheeler (Shiloh Fernandez), whose entire identity and social life stem from the place. He has some writing talent, but isn't much interested in college, preferring to hang out with his high-school buds like Brent (Heath Freeman, one of the film's producers), who has returned to town a hero for his motocross exploits. Ritchie's home life doesn't hold much appeal, with his parents' splitting apart and a pesky younger sister, Mary (Haley Ramm), forever prodding him to make something of himself. Brent's sister, Michelle (Ashley Greene), is definite girlfriend material, but even she is stymied by Ritchie's jejune apathy.

Anthony Burns' direction and the screenplay he co-wrote strain for the haunting, elegiac quality of Peter Bogdanovich's similarly themed masterpiece, The Last Picture Show, but the triteness of the conception and execution here defeat him. Peter Simonite's verdant, sun-dappled cinematography is often quite lovely, making this small-town 1980s world very attractive, with its lakeside parties and the tacky excitement of that skating hall, but that is about the only real artistry in evidence. Burns makes plentiful use of period pop songs like "Electric Avenue," "Der Kommissar," Modern English's classic "I Melt With You" and the like, which should evoke waves of nostalgia in survivors of that era, but it's an inescapable truth that these ditties contain far more flavor than anything else happening on the screen. It's that old, old theme of guys feeling out of place and old before their time after the fecklessness of high school and done so much better by the likes of Bogdanovich, not to mention Barry Levinson and Federico Fellini.

A vicious group of local thugs prove a constant threat to Ritchie and Brent, and Burns brings them on with a regularity calculated to amp things up dramatically, but why doesn't anyone call the cops on these creeps who crash private parties and create constant mayhem? The tragic outcome of their bullying is sentimentally lingered over with flashbacks of happier times shared by the protagonists—such is the extent of Burns' cinematic poetry. This all possibly might have worked with a compelling central character, but Fernandez, who recalls a younger, lesser Joaquin Phoenix, is far too lightweight to garner much interest, and you don't feel for a second the potential of a good writer the film claims for him. Freeman brings some vibrant dash to his role, like a New Wave Errol Flynn; canny producer that he is, he has given himself the most colorful role.