Anthony Burns, directing from a script he co-wrote with Brandon and Heath Freeman, has crafted a poignant coming-of-age story that transcends its time period. American Graffiti
is set in 1962, yet it was released in 1973 and remains relevant to this day. Similarly, although set in 1983 and shot in 2009, Skateland
has that same timeless quality.
is set in a nondescript Texas small town, where the local roller rink is on its last disco legs. Ritchie Wheeler (Shiloh Fernandez) has worked there throughout his high school years and, like the fad which created the town's only hangout, is ready to move on. Life changing decisions about college and girlfriends, not necessarily in that order, consume his days and intoxicate his nights at the ubiquitous parties where the local teens flex their muscles and stake out their territory. Bright little sister Mary (Haley Ramm) worships him, as well as the value of higher education, and beams at the prospect of her big brother heading off to school. Michelle (Ashley Greene) and Deana (Ellen Hollman) are the objects of his affections past, present, and, in their dreams, future.
is story-driven and rests primarily on the shoulders of Shiloh Fernandez. The film simply does not work without the ability of the viewer to identify with his hopes and heartaches. Ritchie is the kind of guy that women dream of -- manly but sensitive, tough but vulnerable -- and Fernandez is clearly up to the task. Ashley Greene is intense and particularly effective in support, as is young Haley Ramm. But it's Fernandez who carries the film and distinguishes it from others of the genre. His powerful performance will be remembered as much as the evocative soundtrack.
In the past I've written a bit about my love for long takes -- scenes with one camera and no edits, lasting anywhere from thirty seconds or so to a few minutes at most. In particular, long tracking shots, or long takes with the camera in motion, excite me the most. No wonder, then, that Orson Welles (especially in Touch of Evil
), Alfred Hitchcock (who is said to have perfected it), and Gus Van Sant happen to be among my favorite directors. All employed this cinematic device to a great extent. Joe Wright's 1997 film Atonement
has a now-classic steadicam shot that lasts an astounding five minutes and 20 seconds, with no edits, and involves nearly 1500 extras.
opens with such a scene. It takes the viewer from the parking lot of the roller skating rink, with the "Skateland" sign clearly visible in the background, into the building itself where the protagonist wheels in and around patrons and co-workers.
I marvel at the ability of director, cinematographer, camera operator, focus puller, actors, and all involved in filming a scene to pull something like this off in literally seamless fashion without it appearing pretentious, leaving a sense of satisfaction and wonder. Even for those not interested or familiar with the esoterica of filmmaking it can be impressive.
is filled with long takes. Traditional cuts from the various characters' points of view -- alternate angles and closeups interspersed with long shots -- are absent in many scenes. No matter that the director explained in the Q&A after the screening here at Sundance that conventions were thrown out the window more because of lack of money and time than anything else. It may have been a nightmare for editor Robert Hoffman ("What? No coverage?") but it works. Cinematographer Peter Simonite did the best with what he had, and his talented young cast made it all seem right.
Visuals are always paramount in a period piece, and the film's lush color palette of warm reds and glowing ambers are like comfort food. Lighting is soft and natural, even in the many outdoor night scenes. Bright neon colors predominate in the skating rink interiors, perfectly matching the early 80s music which makes the film so emotionally moving for many viewers familiar with the songs of the era. Kudos to music supervisor Roanna Gillespie and those involved in securing clearances. For those of us who grew up in that decade, Skateland
features the soundtrack of our lives and it's hard not to sing along.
This is Anthony Burns' feature directorial debut and is certainly a moving and emotional calling card. As acknowledged in its closing credits, it is dedicated to and owes much to the late John Hughes, who would be beaming with pride at what Skateland
has accomplished and the place it may one day hold in the genre. Hughes developed and refined the coming-of-age film in the 1980s with films such as Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club
, and Pretty in Pink
. Whether or not this movie actually claims that position will require some faith and honesty on the part of the viewer. People tend to quash emotions stirred by films like this. Hopefully Skateland
can overcome the cynicism and leave the viewer smiling.
NOTE: I rated the film a 5/5 and selected it as one of my Top 5 Picks from this year's festival (see MY PICTURES of the Q&A).