Though many haven’t seen Tristan Patterson’s documentary “Dragonslayer” yet, there’s a high probability that it will be one of the most talked about documentaries of the year, much like last year’s “Catfish” or “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” The film follows West Coast skateboarder Josh “Skreech” Sandoval in his daily life as he searches for empty swimming pools, smokes a lot of weed and comes to terms with life after fatherhood.
It’s easy to say that not much happens over the course of the film. There’s a lot of skateboarding, but there’s also just an abundance of Skreech hanging out with friends, mostly with his girlfriend Leslie. However, the brilliance of the film lies in Patterson’s ability to create a journey for Skreech from absentee father to hardworking dad; the fun comes from Skreech remaining a skatepark bum no matter what identity he takes on.
If anything, the film is a portrayal of skateboarding as a lifestyle — with Skreech as king. For anyone who goes into the movie thinking that skateboarding is so ‘90s, think again. That element of making new what we believe to be old is what elevates Patterson’s documentary above the rest — so far above the rest that the film won the Jury Prize last month at the South by Southwest Festival.
Patterson doesn’t get fancy or complicated with his story. The viewer is simply allowed into the innermost circle of Skreech’s life. We see him on dates with Leslie, at the zoo with his son Sid Rocket and taking hits off his bong (many, many hits) with his friends. The filmmaker does keep us wholly in the present, meaning there are very few hints as to Skreech’s backstory. There’s one scene where Skreech gets a call from his mother and informs his friends that he hasn’t heard from her in six months. It’s one of the few moments in the film where we get any sort of indication that Skreech’s not-so-shiny childhood could account for some of his less than admirable behavior.
And on that note, the film does not shy away from depicting Skreech at his worst moments. We see him throwing up after a drunken bender in which Leslie can barely mask her disgust. We hear him justifying why he’s leaving his son to go skateboarding. Though at first glance there might not be that much to like, we’re still fascinated by Skreech and his life. In the end, Patterson’s complex portrait of Skreech has us questioning our feelings about his lifestyle and his decisions.
The story structure is largely episodic, formatted in a “countdown” as we get closer to the heart of Skreech. Patterson never enters the film though any kind of expository voiceover, and interviews are rarely ever done face-to-face. We’ll see the backs of people’s heads as they talk, or we’ll hear their thoughts in voiceover. All of these narrative tricks disorient the audience, much like the varied drug-addled states through which Skreech travels during the film. It’s much like “The Wrestler,” only this is real life.
Most perplexing of all, but in a good way, is Eric Koretz’s cinematography, for which the film picked up its second award at SXSW. If there’s anything about “Dragonslayer” that really matters, it’s the beautiful visuals. There’s one scene in which Leslie and Skreech sit out by a bonfire that becomes an overpowering radiation from the screen. The skateboarding sequences are immaculately captured, and there’s one of the most magnificent shots of a drive-in theater ever seen. It isn’t everyday that a documentary pays this close attention to how their message gets across; we’re used to getting a pre-packaged agenda, directing us what to think about a certain issue.
Aside from an out of place rant against the government in the third act, “Dragonslayer” is practically flawless. The movie is yet another example of the ways in which documentary filmmaking is pushing the boundaries of theory to create an authentic film experience for an audience seeking something akin to real life. Should this film find a life in major theaters — and we think it will — it’s definitely worth checking out. [A-]