Dragonslayer: Movie Review

Sympathetic but unglamorous doc shows the back side of life as a low-level pro skateboarder.

The documentary about the unglamorous side of pro skateboarding wowed the jury at South by Southwest.

AUSTIN — An unromantic look at the life of a pro skateboarder, Dragonslayer lets its subject speak for himself even when his words and behavior tend to counteract the filmmakers' apparent affection for him. Beautifully photographed at times and unique in its perspective, the doc, which won two top prizes at SXSW, may have a modest appeal beyond the skate community.

Following Josh "Screech" Sandoval from far-flung skate contests to the crummy garages and side yards where he pitches a tent in lieu of real housing, filmmaker Tristan Patterson forgoes interviews that might establish Sandoval's place on the scene or explain a back-story he only alludes to. "I quit skating,” he tells an admirer early on. “I got really depressed."

We never learn why Screech went into temporary exile, but over the course of the doc's 11 loosely organized chapters, we do conclude it has left him rusty: He wipes out over and over at one competition, and often decides to skip skating in favor of less strenuous entertainment.

Patterson hints at childhood neglect that doesn't bode well for Screech's own newborn. The skater talks to his mother only once or twice a year. When we see him on the phone with her from the road, it's clear he doesn't even know where she lives. What emotional support he gets comes from a girlfriend (not the child's mother) who endures his most extreme beer/pills/pot benders with barely concealed disgust.

We do see a more industrious side to Sandoval though, as he and friends use Google Maps to find abandoned swimming pools to skate in. Sandoval sometimes mops up stagnant puddles with his own clothing to make the sloping concrete usable.

The portrait is dispiriting overall, inspiring little affection from viewers, but feels authentic and fair. Patterson combines the scattershot, low-fi videography of skaters filming each other with the less prosaic work of DP Eric Koretz, whose images — exemplified in a gorgeous, chiaroscuro-lit conversation scene at a drive-in movie — earned SXSW's jury award for best documentary cinematography in addition to the best-doc prize given to the film itself.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)
Production Company: Animals of Combat
Director: Tristan Patterson
Producer: John Baker
Executive producer: Christine Vachon
Director of photography: Eric Koretz
Music: T. Griffin
Editors: Jennifer Tiexiera, Lizzy Calhoun
No rating, 73 minutes