I have never rollerbladed. By the time it caught on and became yet another “Extreme Sport” (or “X-Treme” for the marketing savvy), I was well and fully over it. I did, however, rollerskate on occasion back in the day (cue the theme to The Andy Griffith Show). And like most things in my youth that I took joy in, I did it in the most low-rent, Army Pete, hand-me-down sort of way imaginable. My first pair of rollerskates (nay, my only pair) were these hideous white leather numbers with red accents. They were maybe a step up from the metal slabs with wheels that you could just strap onto the bottom of your sneakers. What made them even more exceptionally crappy were the tiny clay wheels. They looked like they were made out of very old rocks (possible from Stonehenge), and they were as noisy as the proverbial dump truck rolling through a nitroglycerin plant (thank you, Uncle Lewis). They were the kind of wheels that if you hit anything thicker than a leaf, you stopped dead and went ass over chisel onto the very unforgiving ground. There was also no way to stop on the skates, so you either grabbed onto the nearest solid object (usually a nice, rusty fence) or ran into the nearest patch of grass (which again would send you ass over chisel onto the very unforgiving ground). I don’t recall if I ever wore them to the local skate rink, Skate Odyssey, but I want to say I probably did. After all, there was no way I could afford skate rentals, and the rink wouldn’t have larger skates for a kid like me with extraordinarily wide, fat feet (which I still have and the shitty arches to go with them). Yes, dear reader, I most likely rode around Skate Odyssey, jamming to Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend,” wearing a pair of rollerskates that would have sent Jim Bray into fits of apoplexy. And I did it with my head held high (or at the absolute minimum, not hung in shame). Stick that in your pipe, Mitchell Goosen (Shane McDermott)!
The aforementioned Mitchell (whom, bizarrely, no one ever refers to as “Goose”) just loves blading from his house to the beach and catching some tasty waves every single day of his lazy life. However, when his parents (Louan Gideon and Jim Jansen) get a grant to do a zoological study in Australia, Mitch finds himself shunted off to Cincinnati, Ohio with Aunt Irene (Edie McClurg) and Uncle Louis (Patrick O’Brien). Teaming up with oddball cousin Wiley (Seth Green), Mitchell soon discovers that his laidback attitude may be a bit much in the landlocked states of the Union.
The very first thing that should strike you about Rob Bowman’s Airborne is its heavy reliance on fantasies. What’s a little more interesting is in how we are introduced to this motif. When Mitchell goes to his first class at his new school, he catches the eye of Jack’s (Chris Conrad) girlfriend Debbie (Katrina Fiebig). This is immediately followed by Jack grabbing Mitchell and throwing him through a window. But, of course, our very next cut is of Jack, fuming but seated, this shot matching the one which preceded his outburst. Mere moments later, Debbie fantasizes about Mitchell with his shirt off, sunlight beaming down over him. The first two fantasies in the film don’t belong to our protagonist, yet they go a long way in grounding the approach to the story and the world that Mitchell has entered. These are teens, and teens have very strong, very immediate urges. It’s also a great shorthand to set up some primary character relationships. It doesn’t really pay off on any of them (which I’ll get to later), but their establishment is solid stuff.
By contrast, Mitchell constantly fantasizes about the rolling waves he misses so much. What’s odd here is that, the wave symbolism has no deeper connection to the plot, its on-the-nose explanation from the protagonist being as skin deep as skin deep gets (which would be just skin deep). In what is perhaps one of the most frustrating dream sequences ever put on film, we see the waves, Mitchell wakes up, and then relates his convoluted dream which we have not been privy to outside of the water imagery. All of the fantasies in the film are frustrating in similar regard because outside of generating a slight amount of visual stimulation, they have no bearing on the story whatsoever. In that respect at least, they are fantasies as teens may experience and process them, but from a viewer standpoint, their lack of meaning despite their emphasis throughout renders them superfluous.
I mentioned the stymieing of expectations, and this is the film’s biggest flaw. We expect the primary conflict in the film to be between Mitchell and Jack with Debbie complicating things with her puppy love for Mitch and Mitch’s puppy love for Nikki (Brittney Powell) growing. It isn’t. We expect Mitchell to grudgingly gain the respect of his new peers by teaming up with them to beat the Preps in their beloved sport of hockey, thus learning something about himself and coming to admire his teammates as equals. He doesn’t. We expect Mitchell to get taken down a peg and understand that he doesn’t, in fact, have the answer to everything (something McDermott punctuates by constantly ending every sentence with a jaw-clenched rictus) and that there is as much value in the relationships he is forming in Ohio as those he left in California. He doesn’t, and his obstinate self-righteousness is truly nerve-grinding to put up with, to boot. In much the same way that the fantasies are essentially meaningless, the conflicts in the story are also meaningless, because the filmmakers don’t seem to care enough about any of them to develop them beyond passing fancies.
I’m not sure if Bowman and company thought they were being more clever than they actually are in confounding audience assumptions at every turn, but by giving us surrogates to resolve those expectations and then deriving no real sense of progress with these surrogates, instead of providing us with something to champion as a standout work in a cliché genre, we get an admixture which is still enjoyable for the notes it hits but lacking in any resonance outside of its value as a snapshot of the Nineties (and not even a very illuminating snapshot, at that). The film is still entertaining enough on a strictly surface level, and it could make a decent third feature on a triple bill with Rad and Thrashin’. But all by its lonesome, it’s a schizophrenic mélange, a highlight reel of a more cohesive movie that may very well only exist in Mitchell Goosen’s fantasies.
MVT: Bowman’s direction is highly capable, and the film looks great, so I certainly can’t take that away from anyone. If he had a better script, however…
Make Or Break: The race down the Devil’s Backbone (read: the entirety of Cincinnati, Ohio) is the standout. It’s remarkably well-blocked, it’s well-edited by Harry B. Miller III, and the cinematography by Daryn Okada is dynamic and nicely framed, capturing the locations attractively.