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SXSW Film: 'Skateland'

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Shiloh Fernandez, Ashley Greene and Heath Freeman in Skateland.

The ’80s couldn’t possibly have been this cozy. Skateland, Anthony Burns’ 1983-set coming of age story, is warm, welcoming and seen through a high gloss of nostalgia. The gorgeous light and loving cinematography say more about how Burns and company feel about the decade than any number of goofy, throwaway lines about how hot the cars (and the high-waisted jeans) were.

Skateland wears its John-Hughes-loving heart firmly on its sleeve even before the words “in memory of John Hughes” pop up at the beginning of the credits. Burns uses the sentimental value of pop songs like a true Hughes devotee; his female characters are perceptive and loyal in a way that suggests the influence of Watts and Amanda Jones from the Hughes-penned Some Kind of Wonderful.

But Skateland is no John Hughes movie. (Keep reading...)

For the most part, it succeeds at what Burns said, in the after-film Q&A, he wanted to do: tell an honest story of the era. Skateland follows 19-year-old Ritchie Wheeler (Shiloh Fernandez) through one uncertain summer. His dreams get cracked; his parents split up; the skating rink where he works is going to close. He’s a writer with a slow-burning thing for the girl next door, Michelle (Twilight’s Ashley Greene, looking oddly like Teri Hatcher). Michelle's older brother, Brent (co-writer Heath Freeman), has recently returned home after things went vaguely awry with his motorcross career. (Ritchie’s other best bud, blond ladies’ man Kenny, is played by Taylor Handley of the Eugene-set Zerophilia.)

Summer drifts by like summers do. Parties, work, hanging out. Ritchie’s happy enough not making a plan for his future, which drives Michelle crazy. It drives me crazy that Michelle’s character is so built around Ritchie; she comes close to displaying depths and desires and her own agenda, but Skateland is so fully Ritchie’s film that her character’s second-fiddle position is primarily to push and push at her foot-dragging beau. On the flip side, too much of Ritchie’s easygoing, indecisive character is built on Michelle’s perception of him: She loves his writing, but we never see a piece of it. Similarly, he’s attached to Skateland, but the rink’s closing is a catalyst — at the very least, Ritchie has to get a new job — and little else. It’s there as a parallel to Ritchie’s parents’ divorce, and neither is satisfactorily explored. Each is a marker, a brief indicator of the way change is affecting this little East Texas town.

If Burns (and his fellow writers, Brandon and Heath Freeman) is a little transparent in his plotting, Skateland is nonetheless disproportionately lovely to look at, a hazy vision of 1983 as seen by someone who heard the stories and is sure it was an awesome time. Though the plot trucks along conventionally, the last reveal is so gentle and generous, it brought a lump to my throat. And, oddly, a pivotal car chase suggests that Burns has a future as an action movie director. The automotive face-off between Ritchie and Brent and the Four Horsemen, as their nemeses are dubbed, is tense, fierce and, most importantly, coherent. Burns never loses track of exactly where his characters are, which heightens and sustains the sense of danger.

The filmmaking here is sleek and sharp (the long take that opens the film is the roller rink’s best moment), and the production design is spotlessly, amusingly period. But the fact is, I keep thinking Adventureland when I should be thinking Skateland. As goes Ritchie, with his sleepy eyes and reluctantce to face change, so goes the film, which drifts too indulgently to make much of an impression. But damn, if it doesn’t look good.