Sean Clancy on Dragonslayer : Blame it on Cali

November 28, 2011

By Sean Clancy

Just blame it on California. The not-so Golden State is perhaps just as much a character in this strangely affecting documentary about a wasted skateboard pro on the fringes of what may be a decaying society as the young man the camera follows. Dragonslayer is California and Cali kids as ragged, foreclosed, beautiful messes — perpetually stoned, skating toward oblivion. It’s tragic and gorgeous and you cannot look away.

Oh, and there’s a California girl here who almost steals the show.

Dragonslayer follows skateboarder Josh “Screech” Sandoval for most of a year as he skates by in what seems to be a mostly hand-to-mouth existence. Alternating between his own shots and footage taken by Sandoval, director Tristan Patterson takes a sort of guerilla approach to the story, letting events unfold in chapters counting back from 10.

It should be noted that Sandoval isn’t a big-money skater like Ryan Sheckler. No, Sandoval spends a good bit of his time poaching janky, empty pools in the backyards of abandoned homes across the Cali ’burbs. His sponsors are few to none, and about the best they can do is help him rent a room at a friend’s house (though there are times when Sandoval lives in a tent).

Patterson follows him to a few contests, but Sandoval isn’t exactly championship material. His style of skating is more akin to punk rock with absolutely zero mainstream aspirations (and speaking of punk: this film is distributed by Drag City, so the soundtrack — Best Coast, Bipolar Bear, Real Estate, etc. — is straight up punk heaven). The chain-smoking Sandoval seems more at ease throwing back 40s, hitting a bong, popping pills and skating cracked backyard pools than trying to win a skate comp. Seriously, he can’t compete at one event because he doesn’t have a board.

Which adds to his appeal, in a self-defeating sort of way, though not much. Really, Sandoval’s pale, skinny shoulders don’t seem nearly strong enough to support a feature-length documentary.

But, as we said, it is so hard to look away. Sandoval has a six-month-old son and wants to do right by the boy, but just can’t get it together. A scene where Sandoval takes a call from his mother, who he rarely hears from, is powerful. A reference to a depressive fugue that led him to give up skating for a year is mentioned, though a follow-up never comes.

And then there is Leslie, Sandoval’s girlfriend (though not his baby mama). She is college-bound, intelligent, pretty and inexplicably drawn to Sandoval. Her attraction to this skate rat is one of the great puzzles of Dragonslayer , but the film is so much stronger for her presence, though that in itself is a bit of a mystery.

Leslie is almost stoic, her face a blank mask that rarely betrays any emotion; she is quiet, sipping on beers, toking on a bong and driving into the California sun with this hyper, mostly harmless, probably deeply troubled boy.

It makes you wonder about her own troubles. She’s almost like some Brett Easton Ellis character — cold and detached. She also brings to mind Scarlett Johansson’s Rebecca in Ghost World, a quiet young woman capable of mild cruelty who will likely grow out of it and this skater-punk phase she is going through.

There is a scene at a drive-in movie toward the end of the film with just Sandoval and Leslie that is heartbreaking and fantastically gorgeous. Leslie’s pale face and dark eyes are mesmerizing. She barely speaks, and when she does answer Sandoval’s constant chatter — I think she says something like, “Okay” or “Yeah” and returns to watching the screen — it’s just devastating.

Surely many folks will wonder why these kids are in a documentary at all. But there are parts of Dragonslayer that are transcendent, haunting and original, just like youth.


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