‘Skateland’ plays like a more genuine ‘Adventureland.’ The similarities are there, both films have amusement parks as their key locations, both use the early 80’s as the time period to express to pivotal life changing moments of the lives of young people stuck between youth and adulthood and between freedom and responsibility. Yet ‘Skateland’ is able to capture a genuine poignancy about the era and thus deliver a surprisingly satisfying and lingering coming of age drama.
It’s the early 80‘s and Richie Wheeler (Shiloh Fernandez) is a customer service manager of the local Skateland roller rink in Austin Tx, which like ‘The Last Picture Show‘ is about to be shut down. Ritchie spends his days rollerskating, drinking, hanging with friends and all the activities of someone’s senior year in high school. But Richie’s graduated and still without a distinct path in life. He’s a great writer though and even with encouragement from his supporting little sister he still won’t commit to his future.
Arriving back into town after a shortened career racing motorcycles is Ritchie old buddy Brent Burkham (Heath Freeman), a big man on campus, a confident and cocky playboy and the supreme guys’ guy. But he’s been courting a new girl, who happens to be the ex of the leader of a group of dickwad assholes. Periodically this group called the Four Horseman confront Brent and Ritchie looking to start a fight. Meanwhile Ritchie develops a relationship with Brent’s sister who encourages him to make plans and realize his full potential. Over the course of the summer Ritchie weighs his options, and ponders life’s new possibilities.
We’ve been bombarded with 80’s nostalgia throughout this past decade, and so ‘Skateland’ would appear to have jumped the shark as yet another attempt by the filmmaker to ‘write what he knows about‘. But somehow Burns manages to surmount all the clichés inherent in his conventional plotting.
Burns’ biggest aid is newbie lenser Peter Simonte luscious super 35mm cinematography. It’s so well lit and shot we expect to see high profile and recognizable actors underneath the beautifying light. But nope Burns has all no-namer, all of whom do more than just hit their marks, they bring a kind of freshness we didn‘t get from ‘Adventureland‘.
What‘s refreshing is Burns’ classical composition and minimalist editing philosophy, a style harkening back to the 1960’s where scenes would play out in wide shots without cutting in for traditional coverage. Burns trusts his actors to play a scene and get the proper timing and rhythm of the picture without the need to excessive editing. As such our eyes are allowed to relaxed, and our brains are less strained, thus contributing to the laid back languid enjoyability.
Burns’s score, as expected belts out a mix of 80’s pop classics from Blondie to Queen, as well as some lesser one-hit wonders to get your foot tapping. Burns is not afraid to overload his music on us if it accurately expresses the inner emotional state of the character. Take the finale for instance, Burns holds for a lengthy walking steady cam shot of Ritchie walking through the mall to find Michelle, the Modern English song ’I Melt With You’ expresses the foot tapping excitement of Richie as he’s about to give Michelle the good news.
Admittedly, by the mid point of the film I questioned what this film was about, a paper thin narrative with little forward movement, and little conflict. But I was never bored, and cared deeply for Burns’ characters. Much like ‘The Runaways’ the film admirably coasts full steam ahead on a full tank of genuine nostalgia and enthusiasm for its bygone era.