In 1991, West Virginia’s Public Television network debuted Jacob Young’s Dancing Outlaw, a short documentary about Jesco White, a habitually incarcerated, drug-addled “mountain tap-dancer” with an Elvis persona who knew he could be famous if he just stopped sniffing glue and lighter fluid for a long enough stretch. The doc became a cult favorite, mainly due to the baffling and hilarious things Jesco would say off the cuff and with absolutely no guile. Through the years, Jesco has achieved a certain measure of notoriety, starring in another, less well-regarded film of Young’s, as well as having both a documentary and a fictional film done about him by some of the bros from Jackass and Vice, respectively. However, in that first portrait of White, the audience was given a few moments of genuine pathos, a space in which to grapple with the humanity of a man who otherwise served as a caricature of everything civilized America came to disdain about Appalachia and its inhabitants. With that by means of an introduction, Tristan Patterson’s Dragonslayer is essentially a Dancing Outlaw for this century’s lost generation.
With this documentary, Patterson focuses on a relatively mediocre pro-skater, pothead, alcoholic, and absentee father. Josh “Skreech” Sandoval seems only half-passionate about a competitive sport that will almost definitely situate him in a perpetual state of financial ruin. Although it goes unmentioned, the fact that Josh’s pastime is breaking into abandoned backyards and skating in empty pools is a fitting if fairly obvious metaphor for the economic and psychological malaise from which he suffers. Adrift in a completely depressed landscape, with no prospects for a career (or the desire for one), Skreech spends his time fucked-up and trying to enjoy himself. From the outset, Skreech makes it clear he’s all about traveling, trying to find something interesting in an unfamiliar place.
The lion’s share of the documentary consists of the filmmakers following Skreech as he competes in various underfunded skating tournaments; travels to Scandinavia, Arizona, and Portland; and becomes increasingly romantically involved with Leslie, who is disaffected, clever, and much younger than he. While the two of them serve as kind of broke modern skate-punk version of Port and Kit Moresby, Dragonslayer spins itself into one of the most deftly executed slice-of-life documentaries I’ve seen. There are moments of beauty and moments of grace folded into this film, and the style of the filmmaking complements the style of its subject almost flawlessly, save for an irksome countdown sequence that breaks the film into chapters and feels entirely tacked on.
The empty pools and overgrown, sublimely brown abandoned lawns are just as much characters in Dragonslayer as Skreech and his mercurial girlfriend. Although it’s never mentioned outright in the film (nor is anything else, really), those who pay attention will come away from a viewing with the distinct impression that Skreech and Leslie’s reaction to a busted economy and an older generation who have pretty much lied to them their whole lives is not as inappropriate as it might seem at first glance. Skreech is a drunken idiot who self-medicates to the point where you can’t tell if he realizes how bad of a father he’s being. Leslie is lost and cynical and finds something genuine in Skreech, even if that genuine thing isn’t altogether pleasant. Regardless of what you might think of them, watching them together is mesmerizing, and the experience benefits greatly from Patterson’s sure hand and the confidence he displays in allowing these two misfits to be much more so than do.