Grind transforms formula into freestyle fun.

Mike Vogel and Jennifer Morrison wanna go pro.
Mike Vogel and Jennifer Morrison wanna go pro.

Deck. Wheels. Attitude. This is the stuff of Grind, a new comedy about skateboarding and its effects on the human psyche. Neither young dawgs nor old poops will be surprised that the movie is about friendship, competition, product-placement, and like, chasing one's like, dreams. Yet Grind craftily sidesteps the same-old; where it could have been flat and formulaic, the movie is reasonably fresh and fanciful. It may not be deep, but it's sincere -- even a bit weird.

Of course, a whiff of cynicism wafts in with the opening credits, wherein we establish the standard Middle American milieu. This time, Boringville, U.S.A. is a suburb of Chicago, and our tousled blond hero Eric (Mike Vogel, a dead ringer for Mark Hamill in Corvette Summer; he would've been a much better young Anakin Skywalker) is The Skater Who Must Turn Pro. His convincing stunt-double successfully executes sidewalk moves (and "grinds") that land your garden-variety skate-rats upside-down in the gutter, so there's no doubt that he's meritorious. The movie itself remains in doubt for a few minutes, as we sift through memories of Thrashin' and Gleaming the Cube, wondering whether we've landed in a big studio's unspoken-nightmare division called Repackaging of Surplus Hipness. To its credit, the movie is bigger and messier than that.

Settling in, we observe Eric struggling to be taken seriously at Wasted Youth, the local pro shop, tearing down a banner at school (which reads, "What are you going to do with the rest of your life?"), and toiling at a ghastly fast-food joint bearing the unlikely name of Chili N Such. Indeed, the pressure is on for Eric, as for fledgling director Casey La Scala (an exec producer on Donnie Darko), who crudely employs even more text on the screen to introduce Eric's zany buds. In short, Matt (Vince Vieluf) is a hyperactive freakshow who can't stop excreting, Dustin (Adam Brody) is a prissy nebbish named Dustin, and Sweet Lou (Joey Kern) is an irresistible babe-magnet à la Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused. Eric's goal is to unite his "friends by default, not by choice" into a team, so that they can chase a pro skater around the country in hopes of getting sponsored and going pro themselves.

If you stop and think about it, Eric's plan sucks so much that not even total idiots would join him. However, dewy screenwriter (and sometime composer) Ralph Sall litters his script with so many references to popular confused-youth semiclassics that attentive minds will be lured away from logic by a game of Spot the Affectionate Thievery. You name it -- Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Bad News Bears series, even the odd Twisted Sister video -- it's all whipped into the mix. It's almost impossible to pick on Eric's foolhardy vision-quest, since you're too busy wondering when Jackie Earle Haley will be sauntering through.

Before long, the movie bursts with road-trip high jinks, as the buds hit the road in Sweet Lou's funkified sex-van, chasing skate-shows across the country and caterwauling along with the odd Poison song, played in the ancient van's truly unlikely CD-player. The boys betray a distinct affection for '80s tunes -- the members of Spandau Ballet will be very surprised to be receiving a check, for the actual "True" even, not the stupid rap rip-off -- and soon encounter Antagonists. Foremost are some unbearable "wiggers" -- you know, spoiled, lazy white boys who behave and dress like they're both retarded and lobotomized -- whose every move on their boards and in their goddamn Cadillac Escalade is a direct attack on our hapless heroes.

But there are also subtler foes, as when Eric and the boys infiltrate a "classy" dance party and encounter the horror of today's ravers. It must be noted that this movie perfectly nails that glazed, dumb-fuck look that club kids practice as their stock-in-trade. Our four modest Midwestern boys try to shake things up with a forehead-slapper of a dance to Young MC's "Bust a Move," but the best moment comes when nerdy Dustin tries to bust a move on a glazed chick. "Let me just get you another glass of bitch," he politely suggests.

Even though the movie's general characters and conflicts could be dropped functionally into almost any setting, Grind does evince a true love for skating. Both the street action and the actual competitions are brilliantly performed and slickly lensed, from Illinois across Colorado and Arizona to an impressive finale in Santa Monica, with the likes of Tom Green and some regulars from Jackass checking in for mediocre yuks. Even though the movie was produced in California, it feels like the rawkin' enthusiasm and comradeship of Dogtown and Z-Boys's Zephyrs beamed out across America, and the message, here, is making its way back home. See this before morons like David Fincher and Fred Durst sling their steaming load of remake at you in 2004.

Do note: If you're hoping for any shred of sophistication, forget it. Director La Scala has blathered that his lead skater-girl, Jamie (Jennifer Morrison), is "empowered" or something, but she's just another boy here. Per adolescent expectations -- which are not inappropriate for the material -- all young women here are strutting T&A displays, mostly wearing jeans with the waistline cut to mere millimeters above their urethra and anus. (The kids of 2023 are gonna laugh at this! -- then of course, Warner Bros. can capitalize on the revival.) And speaking of anus, the character of Matt spends the entire movie either releasing ghastly things out of his or commenting thereupon. With a friend like this, who needs enemas (thank you; tip your waitress) -- Eric's unhappiness feels very convincing.

In fact, it's the sense of confusion, of not even knowing if your friends are worth the trouble, that makes Grind more than a dumb-ass comedy. When we see that Eric's dad is a terrible caricature of middle-aged assholery and discover that Matt's dad (a terrific Randy Quaid) is literally a clown, suddenly the desire of these uppity lads to go shred themselves a future makes a lot more sense. That the movie is funny and excels beyond Youth Culture 101 is a nice bonus.

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