REVIEW: Small-Town '80s Nostalgia Highlights the Easygoing Skateland
Cultivating a longing for a time one didn't live through is nostalgia's version of unrequited love. The result is pure, unfiltered by memory, uncolored by disappointment, sustained by imagination and its very impossibility -- a bulletproof romantic play. I was weaned on reruns of Happy Days and Grease, then The Wonder Years and Stand By Me, and I bet Skateland writer and director Anthony Burns was too.
By the early 1970s, films like The Last Picture Show suggested the power of cinema to harness (or maybe even inspire) the nostalgia of a cohort that grew up on moving image stories of their youth. Soon the next generation was growing up on hand-me-down versions of what it was like to grow up back when growing up had more meaning and a really great soundtrack. Distance was slowly associated with authenticity, even as it provided an aesthetic crutch for what might be taken -- stripped of its hoop skirts or hipster flares -- as naked sentiment.
Burns was just a tot during the early 1980s, when Skateland is set. Old enough, perhaps, to have some memory of the disco party ending and the glare of Reagan's morning in the east; young enough, surely, to conceive of it as a sweeter, simpler time. From its opening bravura shot -- a steadicam tour of the party happening at the titular roller rink, where characters are introduced with finger gun salutes and the camera tracks the wagging backside of a shapely young woman -- Skateland is its own worst enemy. When Burns is not referencing films that either depict that era or are of that era, he's adding songs, food, clothing, hobbies, social phenomena, cars, and hairstyles to what threatens to serve as a complete cultural taxonomy of 1983. Which is a shame, because behind the wall of Blondie is a well-acted, small town story that develops a resonance all its own.
That resonance seems tied to the affinity that Burns (and his co-writers Brandon Freeman and Heath Freeman) have for the small, East Texas town where the story is set. Feeling no particular rush to get out of it is 19-year-old Ritchie Wheeler (Shiloh Fernandez, possessed of a zen warmth in the role). Ritchie has worked his way up to manager of Skateland (the local roller rink and social hub), and though he fancies himself a writer, he's been blowing off his loving little sister's pushes to apply to college. Helping delay the inevitable is the return to town of the prodigal moto-cross star, Brent Burkham (Heath Freeman). Older sister to Ritchie's platonic pal Michelle (Ashley Greene), Brent's a hometown legend who spent his twenties being courted by sponsors and touring the bike racing circuit. A little worse for the wear but terrifically good-natured (which seems to be the local personality, unless you're one of the "Four Horsemen" who run around looking for trouble, in which case you're a total dick), Brent returns to oil work with dad, nights out with his friends, and a hook-up with an old flame.
What I've just described is about three-quarters of the film, which plays out in character-driven episodes that have a strikingly intimate, amiable energy when they're not just aimless. The best of the film is a rapt student of the dynamic that develops between kids who have grown up together, and were lucky enough to find that they truly like one another. The scenes between Brent, Ritchie, and their third leg Kenny (Taylor Handley) have a wistful charge that feels true, their cookouts and lakeside parties the minutia of lasting bonds. Burns also has a knack for evoking, without fanfare, the days when legwork was involved in making social plans and building relationships, whether it meant showing up at a buddy's workplace to propose the evening's itinerary or sneaking into a boy's bedroom to let him know you're be ready to upgrade the relationship.
Burns handles the more dramatic moments -- divorce, accidental death, betrayal -- with invention, using abrupt cuts and impressionistic editing to keep the film from settling into a rut. The women in his life might (Greene is particularly good -- soft but self-possessed -- in what could have been the gloomy girlfriend role), but the viewer never really worries for Ritchie. He's less a young man on the cusp of a lifelong rut than a soft touch who can't keep from mourning his youth before it's even passed. If anything early signs of nostalgia suggest he's well on his way; he might even make a movie some day.