Josh "Skreech" Sandoval is a slacker. A onetime professional skateboarder both admired for and limited by the "random chaos" of his technique, Sandoval abandoned sponsorships and relative fame in search of greater freedom. Tristan Patterson's exhilarating documentary Dragonslayer is, in part, a chronicle of Sandoval's attempt to return to his earlier triumphs. Mostly, though, it romanticizes Sandoval's brand of noncommittal nihilism, and is somehow all the better for it.
Dragonslayer — playing at SPACE Gallery on January 10 — embodies the culture it depicts, of young Orange County outcasts drawn to perhaps the ultimate way of passing time in an environment where there's nothing better to do or, more often, no money to do anything better with. To these skaters, who seem to range in age from 12 to 50, the sport is emblematic of nothing less than freedom: from family struggles, from work and obligation, and from legal boundaries of property. Patterson depicts them congregating in the drained pools of foreclosed homes (found on Internet satellite maps), parking lots, and lush desert environs, equipped with enough weed, cigarettes, and PBR to last until the next party begins.
Except in the case of his newborn son (the product of a broken relationship), Sandoval seems to have successfully extricated himself from responsibility, is positively devoted to not having any. He sleeps on spare beds or in the tent of a friend's backyard, occasionally traveling to Portland, Oregon, or Sweden for competitions before returning to California to skate days away and plan his next gambit. His new girlfriend — a beautiful, intelligent student named Leslie — sees a clear allure in Sandoval's accidental philosophy, and only occasionally seems to regret becoming one of his disciples.
If Dragonslayer's portrayal of anomie exhibits the content of an early Richard Linklater movie, it does so with the structure and composition of something by Terrence Malick. The film — shot by Eric Koretz (who deservedly won the Best Cinematography award at SXSW last year) — is set in a perpetual golden hour, dappled with sunspots and halo-headed punk rockers. Its tempo is a startlingly coherent union of contradictory impulses: half atmospheric diary, half shaky-cam YouTube rager clip with a fuzz-punk soundtrack.
Patterson so convincingly renders his film's contradictions — the freedom and the persistent drag of poverty, the substance abuse and its consequences, the beauty and decay of the skater's concrete jungle — that Dragonslayer's romanticism of hedonism gradually assumes a sort of moral clarity. Sandoval is not oblivious to his shortcomings — of Leslie, he says "Nothing will stop her unless she keeps hanging out with people like me" — but he believes in the righteousness of his cause, or his lack of one. "Everyone's so fucking greedy. Everyone needs to share," Sandoval says to Leslie on a quiet car ride, a moment that gently but powerfully ushers the film into a political realm. Later, he discusses how good the recession has been for the fleeting acquisition of foreclosed-house pools, and Leslie recites a screed about the means by which Americans can divorce themselves from the influence of corporations and government.