Rom Boys: 40 Years of Rad (Photos: 1091 Pictures)

ROM BOYS: 40 YEARS OF RAD
★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Matt Harris
STARS Lance Mountain, John Buultjens

As captured so memorably and so definitively in Stacy Peralta’s 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, the sport (some would say art) of skateboarding seems as tied to Southern California as Disneyland, the Santa Monica Pier, and the ubiquitous Hollywood sign. Rom Boys: 40 Years of Rad is a new nonfiction piece that involves skateboarding, and the surprise is that it’s not set in sunny Californ-I-Ay but rather in a British borough east of London.

Mixing vintage footage with contemporary interviews, director Matt Harris covers the history of Rom, a skatepark that was built in 1978 in Hornchurch, England. Here in the US, skateboarding was all the rage at the time, and British fans responded by building their own little piece of gnarly heaven on their side of the pond. Even after the fad died down, even after other, nicer parks were constructed throughout the UK (and, unlike Rom, those required no admission), and even after a fire ravaged the site in 2018, legions of aging skateboard and BMX enthusiasts have remained devoted to their home away from home. While the film states that Rom closed its doors last year, non-profit outfits have done their best to keep it still in operation (obviously, the place is currently shuttered thanks to COVID-19).

What emerges most prominently from this documentary is the communal feeling of the place, the idea that everyone is part of one large, happy family. One participant probably isn’t wrong when he states that the people there are less judgmental than many of those filling up churches on any given Sunday. It’s also noted that there exists no racism at skateparks like Rom, although that might be due more to the fact that, aside from a few preteen girls representing a new generation, practically everyone seen in the film — in both the old and new footage — is a white male.

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The film is less interesting when the participants repeatedly gush over the place and more entertaining when they personalize their stories. More than one person describes the dangers of the place, and how one wrong flip on a skateboard or one errant turn on a bike can lead to broken bones, dislocated knees, and worse. There’s ample footage showing various poor souls making unintended contact inside “the pool,” the showcase attraction at the park and a merciless well of concrete that’s not meant for anyone save the most accomplished of skateboarders and bikers.

Needless to say, Rom Boys: 40 Years of Rad is a specialized title that will be appreciated by its target audience far more than by general viewers. But like any decent documentary, it offers enough of interest even for non-connoisseurs. For instance, I was fascinated by the tidbit that Rom is the only standing skatepark in the world that has been given preservation status as a historic site. (One in Tampa, Florida, received a similar honor but has since been relocated.) The Historic England government branch has Rom classified as Grade II, meaning that it rests in the same category as Abbey Road Studios. Now that’s rad.

(Rom Boys: 40 Years of Rad is now available on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, and other streaming services.)

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