The title really says it all. Far from Dogtown and Z-boys, the burgeoning west coast punk scene and the empty swimming pools that provided endless possibility, in Germany kids were bolting wheels to pieces of wood and seeing what would happen. And with a wall up separating East from West, a government that spied on its citizens and a chance to see the world a distant prospect, it would seem that a thriving subculture in the German Democratic Republic would be impossible. But, it’s just the kind of fertile ground for discontent to manifest itself in bold ways, and “This Ain’t California” is a docu-drama that captures it all with energy and style to spare.
But perhaps the first thing to get out of the way is the question of authenticity. Though presented and positioned as a documentary — utilizing a blend of real ’80s footage of “wheel-board-riders,” with carefully reconstructed “footage” of the era (it truly does look like it was shot thirty years ago), along with interviews, and even animated portions — “This Ain’t California” is mostly fiction. This has made some folks angry, but to get hung up on those details is to miss the point somewhat. What director Marten Persiel is perhaps aiming for is a documentary of feeling rather than historical accuracy. Perhaps the characters are all made up, and maybe none of this really happened, but the truth of that teenage feeling hits it right on the head, and the filmmaking is so accomplished, that any potential notions of being hoodwinked can be forgiven.
However, it’s not like Persiel goes out of his way to hide it. “This Ain’t California” purports to bring together the friends of the late Denis “Panik” Panicek, a wild, nearly out of control, rebellious skater, who surprises everyone by years later being killed while on duty in Afghanistan. A shocking end for someone who once never tolerated any kind of authority. So yes, Persiel does use this device as the engine for his movie, but it doesn’t take a long time into the viewing of this quasi-doc to realize the director is having a bit of fun. Much of the “vintage” footage is taken from angles that, for less of a better word, are so cinematic and well-framed, it’s hard to believe this is the work Denis’ best friend, an amateur, teenage filmmaker (not to mention that it has been well-preserved). In fact it’s pretty obvious the movie is a bit of put on, and one segment of a GDR news broadcast about the dangers of skateboarding, is so on the nose satirical that it could be a late night skit.
But what the movie does get right are the dynamics of teenage lives when they come together within a subculture that’s rebelling against the powers that be. Whether it’s skater kids in Berlin, punks in California or whatever group that’s on the fringes, forging their own identities, and crafting dreams beyond the nine-to-five, “This Ain’t California” evokes that spirit with no shortage of electricity. Within the ragtag group assembled around Panik are his level-headed best friend, an attractive woman who can see his true self and all sorts of hangers on that fill various roles in what is essentially a loose knit family. For anyone who has spent some part of their idle youth in grimy punk clubs, sun-baked skate parks or wherever else, the characters of “This Ain’t California” will be more than familiar — they’ll feel like friends.
Even if Persiel’s film is a slight hoax, this has so much energy flowing through it, that it just turns into both a good story, and a document of an undefined time and place that many teenagers finding themselves will experience. The mixed media approach is nearly seamless (though he does lean on one-too-many montages), and again, how he pulls off some of this truly original-looking vintage footage is pretty astounding. And the director know his way around music, with the soundtrack populated by Euro faves of the era like Alphaville and Electric Beat Crew, along with contemporary flavors like Trentemoller.
Ultimately, “This Ain’t California” is a movie powered by nostalgia, a propulsive kind of dreamy reflection to a time and place that may not have existed with events that might not have actually happened, but have all the reality of a life that was truly lived. [B+]