It’s difficult to imagine what the Grand Jury at this year’s SXSW festival were thinking when they awarded the Best Documentary Feature award (as well as one for its cinematography) to Dragonslayer, a meandering slice-of-life doc which aims – and somewhat awkwardly succeeds – to capture the myopic lifestyle of jaded skaters. The problem is that in achieving this goal it is also a disenchantingly dull, overly self-indulgent portrait of a figure that is nearly impossible to warm to.
Josh “Skreech” Sandoval is an unremarkable young man, and so it suits that should a film be made about his life, it might be unremarkable too. Skreech is a relatively skilled skater who hung up his board a few years ago after a bout of depression, only recently returning to the sport, albeit with diminished sponsorship opportunities and a small, though nevertheless loyal, following. His life consists largely of getting drunk or high, hanging out with his new girlfriend Leslie, and occasionally being a father to a son he conceived with a former girlfriend.
The self-indulgence is evident early on in Tristan Patterson’s film, if only through allowing Skreech to document so many mind-numbingly banal moments of his own life. This is an ultra low-fi doc in pretty much every sense of the word, for though Patterson has at least gained access to a relatively decent HD camera, the majority of the footage frustratingly goes in and out of focus, and at times doesn’t make use of a boom mic, reducing some conversations captured from the camera’s in-built microphone to incomprehensibly muffled exchanges. The film is also divided fairly pointlessly into 10 sub-headed chapters which seem to exist only to ratchet up the quirk factor a little.
Once you get over the odd stylistic arrangement, the question becomes, what’s the point of a doc about this guy? The impression we get early on isn’t of someone who has had a particularly hard life – aside from a strained relationship with his mother – but of a relatively careless individual who, instead of facing up to the responsibilities of fatherhood, simply does what he wants and, as he puts it, hopes that the kid won’t hate him.
Skreech’s aloof regard to his fatherly duties makes him difficult to warm to above all else, such that one montage of his pratfalls at a skating competition – blamed ostensibly on a broken skateboard – invites laughter more than sympathy. Combine this with the copious amount of on-screen drug-taking with his pals, constant freeloading and a thoroughly unironic Californian surfer dude demeanour, and you get a pretty tireless protagonist with a serious lack of thematic worthiness to boot. He is little more than a walking cliché.
There are admittedly a few legitimately funny moments, particularly a fellow skater who positively defies convention by discussing philosopher David Hume, and it is occasionally effective when depicting Skreech as making a half-assed effort to look after his son, because it needs no words. The rest, however, might have benefitted from some explanation or narration, because extrapolating meaning from it is, on the basis of its surface-deep level of meaning, a taxing endeavour.
Context, indeed, is hard to find, for while Skreech and his buddies benefit greatly from being able to skate in the empty swimming pools of repossessed homes, there is little allusion to his disinterest being a byproduct of the worldwide economic collapse. It’s difficult not to side with stereotype when his anger at the world and its inequality comes off more as the juvenile ramblings of a kid rather than the reasoned thoughts of an adult, while his girlfriend – a few years younger, mind – misguidedly promotes putting sugar in the gas tanks of police cars and living off the grid. At least their doe-eyed naivety is proven silly by the end, because, as it turns out, trying to live without a job isn’t all that easy.
Dragonslayer – which incredulously picked up the Best Documentary award at SXSW – is probably the first ever hagiography made about someone who is, without doubt, completely unremarkable. But at least at 74-minutes, it won’t keep you for too long. As for the title, your guess is as good as mine.
Dragonslayer is due out in the U.S. on November 5th, no UK date.