Wheels Over Paradise (Paul Mathieu, 2016): USA

Reviewed by Elizabeth Gain.  Viewed at the Metro 4 theater in Santa Barbara.

Wheels Over Paradise was my favorite film I saw at SBIFF, and I have been telling people about it ever since.  Words like “spectacular” and “thrilling” get thrown around.  People are intrigued, and they ask where they can see it.  I send them to the film’s website where they post updates about screenings and online availability.   I hope it does get seen because it’s truly amazing.

The hour-long movie tells the story of downhill skateboarding in the Santa Barbara hills.  It opens with a gorgeous aerial shot of the top of Gibraltar Road, one of the curvy mountain roads that twists and turns down from the top of Gibraltar peak.  Five skaters hi five each-other, then jump on their boards.  The camera drops to the road as though it’s skater number six, following right behind, around each curve, past gravel slicks, into the dirt on the side.  The music rocks and the skateboards gain speed, steering with advanced techniques I’ve never seen before, using brake pads on their gloves.  The movie then profiles some of the skaters, and we learn the story behind the dangerous sport.  Amid plentiful downhill following shots on the road, we also learn why and how it was banned.  The movie explains ongoing efforts to defend and legitimize it, including a well organized race.

One of the main reasons this film is so thrilling is because of the cinematography — the downhill following shots are outrageous!  On a big screen, it actually feels like you’re zooming down the hill, risking death with these guys.  It’s kind of like a ski film, but because it’s so smooth and up-close it’s more like the Soarin’ Over California ride at Disney California Adventure park.  Tom Flinchbaugh, one of the skaters profiled in the movie, is the man responsible for these incredible shots.  He was at the SBIFF world premiere to explain how he developed his technique of driving a car rigged with a DSLR camera five to ten feet behind the skaters.  He said he tells them to focus on riding and “don’t look behind you.”  Tom is the owner and operator of Santa Gnarbara Skate Media and Events, and this film is going to put him on the map.

Another reason it’s so thrilling is because this is really happening in our hills right now, yet hardly anyone knows about it yet.  I remember hearing on the radio last fall that the city banned downhill skateboarding, and my response was surprise: “People are skateboarding down Gibraltar and San Marcos Roads?  That’s crazy!”  Yes, it certainly is crazy, but I agree with the skaters as they eloquently defend themselves in court, that it can be compared to the dangers of downhill bicycling.  In the film, the most persuasive supporters are the skaters’ mothers who describe how their own attitudes changed from worry to support, and we see them helping during the races.

In a sense – this movie is also a social justice film to educate people about downhill skateboarding.  Because the sport is not well known, there were few people involved in the city’s hearings about banning it.  “Skateboarding is not a crime” was the most effective social justice slogan ever, and it was implemented by people who were teenagers in the 1980s.  Those people are in their 40s and 50s now, and some of them live in Santa Barbara.  If they see this movie, will they allow downhill skateboarding to be a crime?  It seems like this is the infancy of the ultimate rebel sport.

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