Solely based on the last couple of decades, the impact and influence of skateboarding in our society and culture is indisputable. Time and time again, it’s evident how people love to flirt with skating – whether it’s through fashion, music or video games. Additionally, it might be even more apparent today than ever that skating can attract people who have never even stepped on a board. You don’t need to know the names of all tricks to see that someone is gnarly or that someone has a style that resonates with you, and you definitely don’t have to know anything about skating to enjoy a film where skating plays a part.
Illegal Civilization (Illegal Civ or IC for short) is a skateboarding company and self-proclaimed “first teen movie studio” founded by Mikey Alfred in 2008 when he was only twelve years old. As Alfred grew older and started to venture away from risky tricks and towards filming them, he started creating videos while also collaborating with various musicians including Tyler, the Creator and Frank Ocean. Alfred’s first real experience with filmmaking besides pure skate videos came with a mini-series of short films titled Summer of ‘17 as well as when he contributed as co-producer on Jonah Hill’s Mid90s. Additionally, Mid90s was also a film where friends and members of Illegal Civ, including Sunny Suljic, Ryder McLaughlin, Na-Kel Smith and Olan Prenatt, played the four main skaters. In hindsight, everything was practice for Alfred’s own feature-length debut.
Set against the backdrop of the eponymous Los Angeles neighbourhood, North Hollywood is a story that brings together a cast of established actors with real-life skaters. Michael (McLaughlin) is a high school water polo player and an altar boy who dreams of nothing else than becoming a professional skater, to his father’s (Vince Vaughn) disapproval. Besides McLaughlin and Vaughn, the film features Miranda Cosgrove, Nico Hiraga, Aramis Hudson and Angus Cloud along with some familiar faces in skating.
Directed and written by Alfred, North Hollywood takes place in a specific environment while its core is still as timeless as any other coming-of-age tale. Throughout the film, we see Michael and his friends Adolf (Hudson) and Jay (Hiraga) engaging in every kind of typical adolescent activity one could think of while their shared bond to skating acts as the backbone. When you’re young you feel so much, and things that you might not even remember when you’re older feels like everything when you’re young. Michael messes up several times in the film as he causes unnecessary pain for others, and when he does, he isn’t always very likeable. However, then again, people aren’t always likeable. We mess up, even when we try not to.
Michael, like many other characters before him, pushes the people he loves away as he gets too eager in chasing his dream. The closer he gets, it seems he’s convincing himself that his goals can’t be achieved as long as his friends are by his side. Therefore, as Michael starts lying and leaving his friends behind in favour of flirting with Rachel (Cosgrove) and following the professionals around, it hurts them. However, it’s also Michael’s questionable inability to be truthful that leads to some of the best performances.
One of the most promising things in the film is the believability of the three friends and how they engage with each other when things go both awry and joyous – especially Michael and Adolf. Even though neither McLaughlin nor Hudson is particularly experienced with acting, they’re a huge part of the heart of the film. As they speak openly to each other at the end of the film, it showcases a kind of tenderness that’s far from the toxic masculinity that has often been associated with certain skating stereotypes. It’s a scene filled with a kind of raw affection that stands out compared to what many other of their cinematic skating counterparts have portrayed and it’s refreshingly poignant. Come for the skating, stay for the grounded performances by the non-professional actors.
Alfred, who grew up with a closer insight into the film industry than most due to his mother working as Robert Evans’ personal assistant for many years, has always been candid about where he’s coming from and where he wants to go in life. Often it feels like the predominantly white Hollywood has come to expect certain stories from Black filmmakers – stories exploring themes of marginalisation, racism, trauma or oppression – as if that’s all they can contribute to the film industry. This while white people in the industry often get to tell all kinds of stories – even stories that are arguably not theirs to tell.
“I’ve always been the only black kid in anything I did, ever, but I don’t let that shit hold me back. I feel like I was put on earth to make movies about skating and nothing can stop me from that,” Alfred has previously stated. Black filmmakers need to have the freedom and resources to choose what stories they want to tell and not be punished for not choosing what others think is their only option. It’s a rebellious move to forge your own path to success, to not let rejections decide or rule over you or your art, and especially with a project that features several young Black professionals across different departments.
While writing about the film, it’s impossible to not mention the bumpy road leading up to its release, especially since it has become such a huge part of it. North Hollywood was rejected by Sundance, as well as by every distributor it was brought to – even by those who liked it. When Alfred shared some of the reasons why distributors chose to pass on it, the explanations mainly underlined that it was “too small” and “too specific,” as they expressed fear that there wasn’t a big enough audience for the film. As the film’s struggles became more apparent, prominent people in skateboarding and beyond came to show their support. “A viewer doesn’t need to know the difference between a nollie flip and nollie heel to follow along and appreciate Ryder’s dilemma,” Thrasher reflected. Tony Hawk also showed his support, as did Pharrell Williams who joined the project as a producer.
Skating is all about falling over and over again until you get it right. It’s pure dedication and perseverance unlike much else and it teaches you all about life. A huge part of life is dealing with various kinds of failures, and in the end, it’s all about how you choose to react to them. If you decide to embrace failures and instead start to recognise that you can learn something from them, you’ll gain so much more in life. Instead of feeling defeated enough to put the film on pause indefinitely, Illegal Civ started a movement to showcase the hunger that existed for their film but also for skate films in general.
Alfred opted for a straightforward approach to the release, first having drive-in showings while later offering worldwide screenings through their website. On May 14, after a month of online screenings, it became available on all major VOD platforms where it has been very successful. For Alfred and Illegal Civ to tell their audience – a majority of them teens and young adults – that getting a “no”, even several times in a row, isn’t the end is both transparent and uplifting. There’s acceptance to find beyond rejections, but every rejection will result in invaluable experiences. Instead of relying on other people, they started from their community to eventually push their project beyond others’ expectations. Very quickly, it became obvious that North Hollywood doesn’t solely have an audience; it has a following.
With a limited runtime of 93 minutes it’s difficult to create a sense of depth to every character and relationship, and one aspect of the film I feel is lacking some depth is Rachel beyond solely being perceived as the love interest. However, I can almost forgive that because of the existence of a scene where Rachel breaks out of the “girlfriend-mould” to stand up for female skaters when it’s suggested by Adolf that they can never – no matter how good they are – be as good as a male skater. Rachel speaks her mind and questions him – and by extension, everyone who shares his opinions – without a single doubt in her mind and without anyone shutting her down. At this moment, she feels like her own person, and Cosgrove portrays her with such believability that resonates with anyone who has ever been on her side of the same argument. It’s a scene that provides a tease of who Rachel is, but it leaves me wanting more.
An integral part of the film is the camaraderie between the friends, which radiates through the screen with its authenticity in how they interact with each other. Alfred, along with cinematographer Ayinde Anderson, has created a vibrant look that feels like a mixture of skate video and feature film. North Hollywood feels contemporary while also evoking feelings of nostalgia in how it’s shot in combination with clothing and soundtrack decisions.
Take for instance a scene in the beginning which features a beautiful tracking shot. It all begins with a shot of Michael burning the tip of a shoelace with a lighter, as the camera pulls back to reveal him being slapped on his back by Adolf who warns that security is about to arrive. As it’s clear that they’re at a school, the camera starts following Adolf as he walks to a wall lined with lockers. As the camera moves back to move alongside a planter where skaters pass a joint, the camera follows the joint into the hand of Jay. As Jay gets up to join Adolf, the camera re-joins Adolf as it follows him down a set of stairs while Jay stays behind. As a security guard tries to disrupt Michael from landing his trick, Adolf continuously blocks him. Despite the long take ending, the joyous energy continues as another security guard appears which results in a mooning and a bit of a scuffle between the opposing sides. It’s a scene filled with so much genuine excitement, a chaotic start (emphasised by the use of Bert Weedon’s “Teen Scene”) to set the mood.
If you’ve ever had any dreams about venturing out in an unconventional career or going against others wishes, Michael’s struggle is easy to relate to. Michael’s father Oliver wants him to choose between what he thinks are the safest options – either get a college degree and pursue a more conventional career or join him in the construction business. The economic divide between Michael and his friends is brought up throughout the film, and it’s clear that it’s a part of Oliver’s mindset. If something doesn’t work out, he can’t provide a safety net. In the end, there are still differences in opinions, but there’s some kind of middle-ground. North Hollywood humanises the parental figure, which is admirable as teen films often forget to show that parents are people as well and not solely obstacles to fight. While he can come across as harsh, Oliver is trying to help in his own way as a single father worried about his son’s future. Oliver’s worldview isn’t very flexible but he eventually respects his son’s decision and reaches a sense of pride in seeing him working hard towards something, even though that something is a thing he can’t fully understand.
Reading through comments online, it’s apparent that supporters of Illegal Civ feel like they’re a part of something. There’s a sense of belonging in bonding with other supporters over released content, but also in communicating directly with the crew. For many viewers, North Hollywood will be the first time they see their own life or dreams portrayed and represented. Additionally, for others, it’ll be the ones working behind the camera that will provide the biggest inspiration for going after your dreams. They all go their own way – or rather, find their own way – and it’s something that embodies the film both on and off-screen. Every movie has an audience, North Hollywood included, and from what it seems, it has a much bigger audience than some might’ve expected.
by Rebecca Rosén
Rebecca Rosén (she/her) is a writer from Sweden with a university background in film, TV and gender studies. While enjoying everything from extremely silly to gory, she thinks that it’s better if you care a little bit too much about what you’re watching than not at all. You can find her on Twitter.
Categories: Feminist Criticism, Films
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