Director/cinematographer Ryan Ferguson’s captivating documentary, Skate or Die, tells the story of Leonardo Castillo, a skateboarder who grew up in a poor and gang-infested Chicago neighborhood. He suffered a gunshot wound that put his skating future in jeopardy. The title is a multifaceted one referring to Leo’s obsession with skating. His love for the sport is so palpable that the thought of him never again being able to do the thing he loves the most takes an evident toll. To a major degree, the injury is killing a crucial part of his life. If he cannot regain the ability to skate, he will metaphorically die. The other title interpretation refers to his environment, riddled with gang activity and violence. You either find some outlet to escape (like skateboarding) or end up as a sad systematic statistic.
Castillo is a very compelling subject to center a documentary around. His backstory is incredibly tragic. He has an antagonistic relationship with his uncaring and irresponsible mother. At a young age, Castillo watched the shocking death of his brother at the hand of overzealous police officers responding to a robbery. Now, he feels helpless as his younger brother falls into the wrong crowd. Skate or Die makes it a point to share that he struggles with dark, negative thoughts.
Despite all that, he’s dedicated himself to making a difference in his community. Leo leads a team intent on building a skatepark in the hopes that it will keep kids from falling into the gangbanger lifestyle. Seeing Castillo overcome the pain he endures during his physical therapy to get back on a skateboard is positively inspiring. His journey shows us that no matter what you’ve been through, no matter what anyone around you is doing and getting themselves involved with, you have to be strong, focused, and dedicated. Leo exemplifies strength and bravery. At a certain point, he teaches a class on screen printing and building and designing skateboards for high schoolers. I found this section delightful and fascinating.
“…suffered a gunshot wound that put his skating future in jeopardy.”
The energetic skating footage and some really stylish camera work add to the overall experience and set it apart from other documentaries with similar stories and messages. One of the coolest things in the entirety of Skate or Die is how Ferguson employs an under-the-skateboard POV shot. It reminded me of Sam Raimi’s iconic Evil Dead evil root sequence, and that’s a huge compliment.
Though, one thing that rubbed me the wrong way was the score, at least in the first 2/3rds of the film. The classical score seems like it would fit better in a completely different narrative. It hardly fits the tone of what is happening on the screen. Maybe it’s just me, but I grew up watching skate videos as a young teenager in the late 1990s/early 2000s, so I associate skating with punk, hardcore, metal, and old-school-inspired hip hop. The music does get exponentially better, but it did affect my enjoyment early on.
Skate or Die is a great documentary with a positive message that will undoubtedly inspire and empower those who watch it. It gets a high recommendation from me, and with a tight, under 90-minute runtime, there’s no reason for anyone not to seek this film out. I wish the movie could have detailed what Leo is up to now. Whatever it may be, I hope he continues to impact those around him positively, and he stays safe and healthy so he can skate forever.
"…a positive message that will undoubtedly inspire and empower..."