The skateboarders in ''Lords of Dogtown" rush the camera. They spin around it, speed toward it, then swerve away. On several occasions, they wear black T-shirts that make it tough to tell them apart. On skateboards, they're less a gang of hormonal teens than an entrancing, almost hallucinogenic athletic swarm -- the constellation of dark stars you see after you've pressed your hands into your eyes.
The movie is like a daydream, and it's most infectious when the characters are in motion or misbehaving, which is often.
By the mid-'70s, skating was primarily a recreational activity. The appearance of concrete-gripping urethane wheels serendipitously timed with a Southern California drought that left swimming pools empty allowed adventurous kids to discover that they could, in effect, surf them with their skateboards.
The boys in this film are addicted to dry pools, which they'll do anything to get to -- scale fences, risk breaking the law, even seduce girls. There's a terrific sequence in which a hot new girl appears at the edge of one of these waterless pools, and the boys take turns skating up the side, as the frame slows down, to say, ''Hi." I doubt I'll see anything more evocatively sexy all summer.
Written by the skate legend Stacy Peralta, ''Lords of Dogtown" recalls how three of these Venice Beach teens, Peralta among them, helped infuse verve into an American backyard hobby, turning skateboarding into the sort of activity that spawns groupies. Peralta made ''Dogtown and Z-Boys," a likable documentary, out of these reminiscences a few years ago, and the guiding model for this new Hollywood version isn't really sports at all, it's rock 'n' roll.
A lot of the bickering and back-stabbing and breaking up and fence mending we've seen before. Envy and fame predictably encroach on the friendships among some of the Z-Boys -- straight-arrow Stacy (John Robinson), bad-boy Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), and hotheaded stud Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk).
The movie feels like a washed-out, pseudo-stoned Beatles movie, with the skateboard as both the boys' yellow submarine and their Yoko. Heath Ledger as Skip, the surfer whose Zephyr board shop is sponsoring the Z-Boys at competitions, is their George Martin, and Sid (Michael Angarano), the most hapless Z-Boy, is Ringo.
Directing all this is Catherine Hardwicke, whose enthusiasm for the antics, the sport, its practitioners, and their personalities calls to mind the cockeyed glee of Richard Lester, the man responsible for ''A Hard Day's Night" and ''Help."
Hardwicke seems intimately familiar with the movie's Venice locales, and the scruffy and exuberant folks who populate the screen seem well in her control, much more so than in her first film, ''Thirteen," which traveled in similar geographical, sexual, and social terrain, but was desperate to shock.
Yet ''Thirteen" and ''Lords of Dogtown" are of a piece. Both films redolently capture aspects of adolescence -- the trippy house parties, the palpable sensuality, the melange of skin colors. Outside one party, Jay does a primitive seduction dance to Jimi Hendrix's ''Fire" for Tony's sister (Nikki Reed, the young co-writer and costar of ''Thirteen") right after her boyfriend, Stacy, leaves. It goes on long enough for a little naughtiness, and a little voodoo to creep in. It works.
Hardwicke, editor Nancy Richardson, and cinematographer Elliot Davis certainly treat the skating with awe, but the movie is serious about its characters, too. Going in, I was worried that Hardwicke would be a prurient and creepy voyeur of youth culture, the way photographers-turned-filmmakers Bruce Weber and Larry Clark can be. Could this woman really identify with these boys? She's about 50. Whatever: The movie has soul, and it stays plugged into the class realities in Peralta's script, which doesn't stint on the boys' complicated home lives.
Jay's mom is a burnout who can't keep a man and is somehow a more ineffectual parent than the one Holly Hunter played in ''Thirteen." Rebecca De Mornay gives the part her tweaked-out all, but her glazed-over blankness makes skater moms look too daffy.
The actors playing the boys, meanwhile, are spirited performers. Rasuk is pure unbridled energy and sex appeal, just as he was in ''Raising Victor Vargas." Robinson (the boy with the curious look on his face in Gus Van Sant's ''Elephant") plays Stacy with relative decorum, all while looking very much like an Arquette sister. Peralta may have portrayed himself as the squeaky cleanest of the crew, but Jay is the role of a star, and Hirsch, who was recently in the smarter-than-it-seemed sex comedy ''The Girl Next Door," gets better with every movie.
Ledger, though, delivers the greatish performance, even while mumbling through prosthetic teeth. Skip is blond and out of it. His attempts to make names for the Z-Boys are undermined by sponsors with more money. But Ledger doesn't go pitiful. He plays every scene for comedy, knowing the best way to break our hearts is to crack us up first.
I'm still not sure the man is a great actor, but here Ledger has shown us something completely unexpected: the finest work that Val Kilmer has never done.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.