Mirroring its driftless central character, Anthony Burns’s Skateland adopts a loose, freewheeling tone that aims to privilege people and place over plotting, but its feel for its preferred elements is as shaky as its handling of narrative when that marginalized component makes its blunt presence belatedly felt. Desperate to evoke a particular locale and—especially—time (small-town Texas in the early ’80s), the film is awash in shallow cultural references, from its wall-to-wall period tunes to its overemphasized pop culture minutiae (Icees, Ms. Pac Man arcade games, Jordache Jeans), the whole thing awash in the nostalgic orangey glow of a glossy magazine ad from 30 years ago. Similarly, the inner life of Ritchie Wheeler, a post-high school local who fancies himself a writer while showing no interest in moving on to college, is often evoked via an injudicious reliance on aesthetic frippery (lyrical overlapping dissolves, fragmented jump cuts) because all actor Shiloh Fernandez seems capable of communicating is his conventional good looks.
“I prefer capitalism to socialism,” he tells longtime friend/potential girlfriend Michelle (Ashley Greene), mostly, it seems, because it allows him to buy beer to drink with his best bud, washed up motocross racer Brent (Heath Freeman). Ritchie’s parents get divorced, local thugs target Brent, and both Michelle and his own sister try to get our man to apply to college, but Ritchie seems half-content to drift from party to camping outing, resigning himself to a failed life in small-town U.S.A. “I don’t know what I want” is his endless refrain, especially keen after the closing of the eponymous skating rink at which Ritchie worked as a manager for the past four years and which represents such an important slice of Americana that he penned a lengthy essay on the establishment’s significance. Too bad we don’t hear any passages from his opus, then we might get some sense of the impact of Skateland on the town’s social life, instead of just being told how important it is. Let’s just say that when the joint finally shuts its doors, it’s not quite The Last Picture Show.
For the rest, there’s plenty of the boys just hanging out, realizing they’re too old for what they’re doing, but determined to enjoy it anyway. Unfunny bits abound, as when Ritchie keeps interrupting Brent’s campfire story of a sexual encounter with irrelevant questions. So does silly dialogue (one partygoer, sipping a beer: “I have a serious question for you. Why is there no New Milwaukee?”; second partygoer: “That’s too deep”). There’s a certain sadness in seeing these people stuck in nowheresville, realizing their options are running out, especially from the historical perspective that positions these mostly working class people at the onset of Reagan’s America. But finally, neither place nor person is pushed far enough beyond the superficial trappings that signify the ’80s, small-town hell and semi-resigned twentysomethings to ring out with anything like genuine poignancy. Even as it paints a bleak picture of its specific moment in time, Skateland seems most likely to appeal to the legions of nostalgists determined to fetishize the decade of leg warmers, hair metal and Pop Rocks.