Directed By: Anthony Burns
Starring: Shiloh Fernandez, Heath Freeman, Ashley Greene, Taylor Handley, Haley Ramm, Brett Cullen, A.J. Buckley, Melinda McGraw
Yes, the summer movie season is revving up, but before you switch gears and put your brain on cruise control, there’s a little something on the more thoughtful side to check out. Forget the fact that it involves zero CGI, Skateland is simple, sheerly in terms of story. Some moments do drag, but overall, Skateland is a nice and leisurely walk in some modest characters’ shoes.
Ritchie Wheeler (Shiloh Fernandez) is a recent high school grad and aspiring writer. Well, perhaps aspiring isn’t the right word as Ritchie is reluctant to apply to college and leave his hometown life behind; and why would he? There are weekly parties at his pal Kenny’s (Taylor Handley) place, the wild and crazy Brent (Heath Freeman) is back in town and Ritchie’s got a great gig working at the local skating rink, Skateland. However, when Ritchie learns Skateland is due to close and his best friend and crush, Michelle (Ashley Greene), pushes him to make due on his talent and apply to school, Ritchie is forced to rethink his options.
Yes, Ritchie’s predicament is established early on, but Skateland doesn’t have very much forward momentum. For a good portion of the piece, we’re basically wading in this 1980s Texas town while Brent drags Ritchie from party to party and Ritchie mopes around afraid to take the next step in his life. This does slow the film quite a bit, but generally, it works.
Skateland isn’t about getting from the beginning to the end and calling it a day, rather about spending time in this town with these characters. It’s a slice of life and if you don’t mind the lack of a driving force, it’s quite enjoyable. Then again, there’s no denying that the absence of a central event or goal can make some moments rather lifeless. The fact that writer-director Anthony Burns keeps the film’s tone so consistent creates the sensation that we’ve already been there and done that. There are just so many times you can hear about Ritchie’s apprehension to apply to college before you catch yourself saying, “Just suck it up and do it already.”
Then again, how can you get frustrated with a guy like Fernandez? Not only is he not half bad to look at for 98 minutes, but the guy is damn talented, too. His honesty works wonders with the film’s style, making you feel as though you really know Ritchie as a person rather than just a guy from some movie. Greene makes a commendable effort to do the same with Michelle, however, she’s got far less to work with. Had Burns and his co-writers, Freeman and his brother Brandon, given Michelle some solo time, Greene might have been able to pull it off.
As successful as Fernandez is in his role, it’s Heath Freeman that snags the spotlight. Not only did he write and produce Skateland, but he’s an absolute scene-stealer. Brent is by far the most animated and interesting character of the bunch. After a failed stint at pro motorcycle riding, Brent returns to town with nothing left to do, but take a meaningless day job and party hard at night. There’s something incredibly endearing yet dangerous about him. When Brent’s on screen, you know something’s going to go down. He’s thoughtful, but volatile, so where Brent goes, trouble usually follows and in a film with such a serene atmosphere, that becomes exceptionally exciting.
Burns also deserves a great deal of credit, as his work behind the lens is what ultimately brings this story to life. The intriguing script and solid performances are one thing, but it’s the set design, costumes and visual portrayal of this world that create the sensation that you’re just as much part of this 80s world as Ritchie, Michelle and Brent. Every costume fits the period without shoving it in your face, as does the wonderfully simplistic yet effective set design. Then, tack on Burns’ stimulating visuals and you’ve got a film that well, is just a ton of fun to simply look at. Screen space is rarely wasted, Burns often combining creative blocking and camera movement to keep your eyes fully occupied at all times. He and his crew also work wonders with lighting, creating a near-three-dimensional sensation without forcing you to rock those clunky plastic glasses. (Perhaps some of those big studios should take a hint.)
All in all, what we’ve got here is something beautifully simple. While it’s not a piece that’ll change your life, it is one packed with seemingly little problems (albeit one) that nearly everyone can relate to. Burns and the Freeman brothers seemingly knew exactly what they were going for when writing this piece and then bringing it to life and that cohesive vision is what makes Skateland such a successful production. It’s more than just a story; Skateland is a few days in the lives of these characters and that, in turn, makes it feel far more authentic than most other young adult dramas out there.