The measured vérité style of Frederick Wiseman meets the visual polish of Terrence Malick in “Dragonslayer,” a fascinating slice of crude Americana from first-time director Tristan Patterson. However, it stands alone with an infectious hard rock attitude. Patterson doesn’t have the epic aims of those filmmakers but equals their respective abilities to create thoroughly involving environments, pitting gorgeous imagery against cold reality with a delicacy rarely seen in the non-fiction form.
Both intimate diary film and a scrappy take on the sports documentary, “Dragonslayer” follows southern Californian skateboarder Skreech, whose real name is Josh Sandoval, at 23 already a jaded punk rocker and perpetually stoned pariah seemingly adrift in his aimless existence. Rather than analyze Sandoval’s world at a distance, Patterson’s movie inhabits it. Departing from the conventions of documentary portraiture, “Dragonslayer” delivers the cinematic equivalent punk rock candy.
Composed of 10 loosely connected chapters, “Dragonslayer” collects incidents from Sandoval’s private and professional shenanigans, the collage-liked structure stabilized by his blasé perspective as Patterson slowly reveals the genesis of Sandoval’s current state. After surviving a bout of depression that resulted in his loss of sponsorship, Sandoval temporarily left the skateboarding racket before stumbling back into the arena, having fathered a child with his estranged ex and landed enough sponsorship money to handle rent.
His current antics find him traveling the globe from Copenhagen to Portland with his equally dazed girlfriend Leslie and a medical marijuana in tow, not really making a living but somehow managing to stumble forward. Facing increasingly limited resources, Skreech wanders through a cycle of rough skateboarding stunts and off-color antics with a motley crew of likeminded anarchists, running on empty as if it were the only fuel available.
His surroundings are nicely captured by cinematographer Eric Koretz with a warm, evocative color scheme at odds with Sandoval’s inner discord. The narrative takes on a free-form, dreamlike quality and only the outline of a linear story. Patterson taps into Sandoval’s apparent incapacity to sort out his life as anything more than a succession of moods and physical endurance. At times, Sandoval takes over the camerawork, at which point “Dragonslayer” may as well exist inside his head. Patterson mostly does away with talking heads in favor of Malickian voiceovers, turning Sandoval’s voice into a generational mouthpiece.
Nobody analyzes the bleak suburban landscapes where he and his buddies meet up better than its dejected anti-hero, whose matter-of-fact descriptions set the stage better than any caption or analytic distance could. In Fresno, he announces, “we’re here because there’s a bunch of empty pools and fucked-up houses”; in Portland, he excitedly brandishes his weed license. Sandoval’s enthusiasm for meaningless activities comes at the expense of his legitimate responsibilities, creating a tension that builds with each subsequent chapter. Nevertheless, it’s impossible not to enjoy his hapless demeanor.
However, since Sandoval’s perspective lead the way, individual chapters lack clarity, and “Dragonslayer” sometimes suffer from the erratic pace. But like Wiseman’s recent “La Danse” and the upcoming “Crazy Horse,” which both focus on professional dance, “Dragonslayer” positions its athletic topic as the natural state for its subject. Everything Sandoval fails to enunciate about his tattered lifestyle becomes apparent through the reckless confidence he displays on his skateboard. Enlivened by a vibrant, contemporary punk soundtrack, “Dragonslayer” brings its sad, uncertain character into poetic focus. The movie doesn’t pass judgement: Sandoval’s odyssey adheres to blind convictions about the liberating spirit of the sport, regardless of the directionless future faced by its rider.
criticWIRE grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? “Dragonslayer” won the top documentary award at the South by Southwest Film Festival earlier this year, where it had its world premiere. Those accolades, as well as the involvement of executive producer and indie film giant Christine Vachon, have helped the film maintain strong momentum along the festival circuit. Drag City opens the film in New York this Friday, followed by Los Angeles next week and other major cities over the course of the next few months, and will premiere digitially in February via SnagFilms. Its appeal to the overlapping punk and skating scenes should help it find perform strongly in these digital markets, while the traveling road show element of the theatrical release should bring steady crowds in larger cities.