Skateland is an awful lot like the teenagers it depicts: It’s moody, indecisive, rebellious, confused, lazy, prone to predictable behavior patterns, and at times highly illogical in its thinking. Leaving the theater, I deluded myself into believing this was a perfectly legitimate way to tell this coming-of-age story; if you personify teen angst through plot and character, you’ll be home free. As I sit here writing this review, it’s becoming more and more apparent that the film is irredeemably flawed. In the first place, it’s completely unoriginal, not just in story, but also in theme, characterization, and structure. Furthermore, despite a tolerable length of less than two hours, it suffers from unreasonably slow pacing. It is, in short, a boring movie about boring archetypes.
Taking place in a small Texas town sometime during the early 1980s, it tells the story of Ritchie Wheeler (Shiloh Fernandez), a recent high-school graduate who has earned many awards for his writing; in an amusing establishing shot, we watch him typing away on a primitive computer (don’t ask me what brand or model). Despite much goading from his sweet, overachieving teenage sister, Mary (Haley Ramm), he isn’t looking to apply to college. He has absolutely no idea what he wants to do with his life. He spends most of his time hanging out with friends at parties, drinking and smoking. He manages Skateland, the local rollerskating rink, which was at once one of the best known hangout hotspots. It has fallen on hard times, and it’s now up for sale. Ritchie must spend the rest of the film coming to terms with an era coming to an end.
In the meantime, he will grapple with the divorce of his parents (Melinda McGraw and Brett Cullen), his growing feelings for a local mall girl named Michelle (Ashely Greene), his long-standing friendship with Michelle’s brother, Brent (Heath Freeman, also one of the writers), and a group of local hooligans, the leader of which has a beef with Brent because he had the audacity to date his girlfriend. A lot of this is set against the backdrop of a lake house party, where the guys all clutch beer bottles and have cigarettes dangling from their mouths. One of the few redeeming aspects of this manufactured plot is that it allows for the inclusion of a number of great ‘80s songs, including “Der Kommissar,” “I Melt with You,” “Funkytown,” and “Electric Avenue.” They even work in Taco’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Come on now, when was the last time you heard that in a movie?
I remember the exact moment Brent became the film’s most engaging character. It was early in the film, when he entertains his friends by doing a flawless impression of Christopher Walken in Annie Hall. He left town to pursue a career in motorcycle racing, but returned when it didn’t pan out. There’s a quietly effective moment when, at one of the many party scenes, he realizes that he’s the oldest person in attendance; like Ritchie, he too must come to terms with the end of an era in his life. This would be fine, except that his purpose in the story eventually becomes so obvious that it’s almost an anticlimax. To say anything more would give too much away, but given how stories like this work, given how characters like Brent are structured, chances are you already have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about.
There will eventually come a final confrontation between Ritchie and the local hooligans. I’d be lying if I said I expected anything less. It is, however, very bothersome that the scene plays by rules so innately cinematic that it never once approaches reality. Scenes like this primarily serve as an emotional release – the boys have done something bad, therefore Ritchie must get back at them because that’s what the audience expects, if not demands. Whatever happened to two wrong not making a right? Aside from the obvious cinematic manipulation, there’s also the issue of repercussions, which would happen in real life but are conveniently left out of the film.
To be fair, I did appreciate the Skateland metaphor: Just as new businesses emerge from the failures of old ones, so too does one phase of life begin after the end of another. It inevitably comes down to whether or not Ritchie will go on to college and end up with Michelle; while decency prevents me from spoiling the ending for you, let’s just say that surprise on your part would be very surprising. I’ve been complaining quite a bit, but the truth is, I really did want to like Skateland. Exempting slasher films and romantic comedies, coming of age stories are among the most reliable the movies have to offer, and when they work, they really work. This movie had all the right ingredients, but if they aren’t mixed together properly, all you end up with is something bland and forgettable.
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