'I Am Thalente': LAFF Review

I Am Thalente Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Los Angeles Film Festival

I Am Thalente Still - H 2015

The voice of a South African skateboard champion anchors this stirring doc.

This audience award-winning doc from the Los Angeles Film Festival tells the story of a South African skateboarder rescued from a life on the street.

Audiences were clearly moved by the documentary I Am Thalente at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The film about a gifted South African skateboarder ended up sharing the audience award in the documentary category. It deserves to earn limited distribution, and it should tap an audience that has shown an interest in inspirational sports-themed movies.

Thalente Biyela grew up in South Africa.  He fled an abusive stepfather and wound up living on the streets of Durban at the age of nine. Skateboarding offered him a passion and a sense of purpose, though he admits that he fell victim to heroin addiction before cleaning up his act.  When he attracted the notice of some American champion skateboarders like Tony Hawk and Kenny Anderson, they helped to arrange his move to Los Angeles. He faced some setbacks in his new home, but his life has clearly turned around since moving here.

Filmmaker Natalie Johns, who also grew up in South Africa before moving to Los Angeles, met Thalente in 2011 and also became obsessed with aiding the boy, and with documenting his story on camera. Although she makes a few missteps, the film succeeds as a vivid, affecting chronicle of a life redeemed.

Johns’s chief asset was Thalente himself. Footage of his extraordinary skateboarding feats existed even before Johns met him, from the time he was eight or nine years old. His skating prowess is impressive, but even more impressive is the wisdom that he expresses. Considering that he dropped out of school at the age of ten, he conveys remarkable intelligence in his matter-of-fact voice-over reflections on the turbulence of his early life.

One wishes that Johns had spent a little more time providing background on the larger community in Durban to which Thalente belonged. There is one interview with a friend who did not have Thalente’s lucky breaks, but the film cries out for more depth in terms of sociological commentary.

Skateboarding footage, however, is vibrant, and the editing is sharp. The film concludes with Thalente teaching younger skateboarders in California, and there is something gratifying about the spectacle of a young man who was rescued from a dead-end life returning the gift and trying to contribute to the future of other young people who need a helping hand.

Cast:  Thalente Biyela, Tony Hawk, Lance Mountain, Kenny Anderson, Guy Mariano
Director:  Natalie Johns
Producers:  Natalie Johns, Oualid Mouaness, Colin Kennedy
Executive producers:  Sal Masekela, Jason Bergh, Julia Lebedev
Directors of photography:  Natalie Johns, Lawrence McCullum
Editors:  Nayim Saati, Brett Bert Shaw

No rating, 79 minutes