An artfully revealing documentary about a poor California skateboarder in search of America, Dragonslayer might be subtitled On the Road with Training Wheels.
Or maybe just In the Ditch.
The film is the story of Josh (Screech) Sandoval, a 22-year-old who practises dangerous parabolas in empty pools of abandoned homes in fading-fast Fullerton, Calif. When inspired, he and demure, ruby-lipped girlfriend Leslie hit the highway in search of skateboard tournaments that barely cover Screech’s limited expenses: pot, painkillers and tattoos.
Sometimes, the couple catch a ride in an SUV crowded with lost boys and girls, kids called Frank the Tank and Kyle the Dude.
Wherever they go, there is buzz-saw guitar played by surf punk bands. Groups with names like Thee Oh Sees, Jacuzzi Boys and the Bipolar Bears.
But Screech never makes it far from Fullerton. Not for long anyway. No money. Besides, his best painkiller is a Gerber-perfect baby, Sid Rocket, whose collapsible stroller is just one of many things in life Screech can’t figure out.
“Ah, how does the stroller thing work again?” he asks Sid’s long-gone mother over the phone.
Like many good documentary filmmakers, Tristan Patterson is a talented eavesdropper who lets characters articulate overriding themes.
And so we have Screech taking Sid to the zoo in the tricky stroller. “Look at the ducks,” Dad tells his little boy, explaining that they’re camouflaged, lost among lily pads and blue-green water. Screech realizes his infant hasn’t encountered “camouflage” before.
“It means like they blend in with whatever the environment is. And you can’t see them good cause they look like what’s all around.”
Of course, that’s what filmmaker Patterson is trying to do – help us properly see a character who has become lost in his surroundings.
Dragonslayer documents what happened when California stopped dreaming. Screech and friends blend too easily into their decaying hometown, a half-hour drive from Hawthorne, where the Beach Boys grew up. This is the California that inspired the enduring youth anthems Fun, Fun, Fun, Good Vibrations and Surf’s Up.
Fifty years later, these communities are Surf Down. Screech and friends Google-Map neighbourhoods in search of abandoned houses with pools as drained as California’s economy.
The Beach Boys were never quite as innocent as their music. Charles Manson lived in Beach Boy Dennis Wilson’s mansion on Sunset Boulevard for a while. Still, at least the Manson Family had a ranch to stay at when they weren’t crashing at Wilson’s place. Screech is happy to collapse in a backyard tent of a skateboard sponsor.
Anywhere he can patch up his cellphone is home.
An out-of-work Hollywood screenwriter before making this, his first documentary, Patterson has created a curious semi-formal style to enter and study California’s dreamy white underclass. On the one hand, his film is structured in numbered, episodic chapters, presumably because Patterson knows his French New Wave and has noted the similarities between Screech and the wannabe actress in Jean-Luc Godard’s My Life to Live.
On the other hand, this is very much DIY filmmaking. After a day chasing Screech around empty pools, the director would toss his subject a Flip camera and tell him to shoot whatever he figured was interesting with the rest of his evening.
The result is a work of powerful, unsettling intimacy. At one point, we see Screech drunk, talking gibberish to Leslie. She shrinks away, afraid.
And we’re not sure if the young girl is backing away from Screech. Maybe it’s the camera. Maybe it’s us.
Special to The Globe and Mail
- Directed by Tristan Patterson
- Featuring Josh (Screech) Sandoval, Leslie Brown and Peacock Henderson
- Classification: 14A