Here’s how you can tell if it’s a good sports movie: If the film is about a sport you’ve never played, don’t want to play, a sport you don’t watch, don’t read about, don’t follow, and somehow, almost always by accident, you end up watching a movie about that sport, and you like it. That’s a good sports movie.
Waiting for Lightning is a good sports movie with one king-hell of a hook, to wit: a San Diego North County guy decides to jump the Great Wall of China on a skateboard. Still, good hook or no, let’s say the jump happens...there goes ten seconds. What do you do with the other 86 minutes?
A lot. Director Jacob Rosenberg tells the story of Danny Way, sunnyside up. Mr. Way won his first skateboarding contest at the age of 11, has been a skateboarding pro since the age of 14, and in the film, in the year 2005, is 31 years old, preparing to jump the Great Wall of China on a skateboard.
We meet Way’s mother, Mary, early on. She talks about hooking up with Danny’s father, Dennis, in Carlsbad and taking the hippie trail up the coast to Portland in a VW van. Danny was born in Portland, but the family shortly returned to Carlsbad where his father was sent to jail for failure to pay $50 in child support to a previous wife.
Nine days after checking into jail Dennis was found “hanged in his cell.” Danny was eight months old. His mother, Mary, fell into meth and coke. Over the years, many men, some violent, came home with mom. She would be gone for days at a time. In the film, Mary says, “My kids grew up never knowing what they were going to come home to.”
Mary remarried and Danny formed a strong bond with his stepfather, Tim O’Dea. It was O’Dea who built his first skateboard. But, that marriage collapsed and Danny lost another father figure.
Speaking as a civilian moviegoer and stone-cold Skateboard World outsider, this could get tedious. But it doesn’t. Just when you think the next relative’s or friend’s or promoter’s remembrances will shove your eyes into the back of your skull, the movie jumps to Way manipulating a skateboard with his feet while traveling at high speeds through air, way too high above the ground. To see an athlete, no matter the sport, who is the best at what he does, is mesmerizing.
Follows is from a 2010 Men’s Journal profile: “Danny won his first pro contest, beating veterans and newcomers alike, and he began collecting monthly royalty checks in the neighborhood of $20K. He was 15.” For a kid who dropped out of school in the ninth grade, living with no parental supervision, that kind of money is trouble.
The film goes back and forth from China to North County and his early teenage years, on to his reckless, rampaging young-adult years, and back to China and a crew building the monstrous ramp, then back to 1997 San Diego and Danny jumping out of a helicopter onto an enormous vert ramp. In slow-mo. Scattered throughout the film are interviews with family, friends, fellow skateboarders, promoters, people billed as “Del Mar local,” archival footage, and reenactment footage. Now back to China, now back home to invent the Mega Ramp on which he sets a world record in distance (65 feet) and height above the ramp (23.5 feet). Back to China and building the Super Mega Ramp, back to a Tony Hawk interview, back to China, everything interspaced with injuries and rehab. Between 1999 and 2002 Way had surgery on his knees five times and shoulders twice. He celebrated his 14th surgery two years ago.
For skateboarding nonparticipants it becomes a blur, and efforts to explain the philosophy of Danny Way feel forced and occasionally a little strange. Danny tells an interviewer, after a vicious crash at X Games 14, “Part of the challenge sometimes is battling the injuries. It’s always gratifying to push the human potential as far as how much abuse you can take and come back from.”
No matter, what counts is China and the Great Wall and the jump. Consider the look of the ramp, 12 stories high, said to be the largest skate structure ever built, but appears to be nothing more than plywood on scaffolding. The wind shakes the structure, there are no rails, no alleys, nothing to stop you from falling or skating off an edge. A crew member, walking away from the ramp, says, “They would never let us do this in the States.”
Waiting for Lightning can be seen at La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas or downloaded from iTunes starting December 7.