LA Film Fest Review: I AM THALENTE, Skating On Passion, Finding Purpose

Editor, U.S.; Los Angeles, California (@benumstead)
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LA Film Fest Review: I AM THALENTE, Skating On Passion, Finding Purpose
We all know the sound. That clack-scrape-whoosh of a skateboard on the sidewalk. For many of us it is as close to the sport as we get.

When we hear that sound some of us move out of the way of the approaching skater. We move out of fear of a rowdy youth, hurtling at speeds we can't imagine on such an object as a skateboard. Some of us step aside out of respect. Out of awe. For we at least sense the passion and the craft behind the speed, engrained within the wood of the deck, within the feet, the ankles, the legs, the hips, the whole body of the skater, brimming with a wiry spark, an edge, a determination. To skate is to live. To skate is to express.

Documentarion Natalie Johns and the film's lead proponent Thalente Biyela immerse us in this world of skateboarding, giving us a front row seat where we feel that joy, that melancholy, the highs and lows with considerable aplomb. One doesn't have to know a thing about skateboarding to get invested in Thalente's journey. In that way I am Thalente is an active, soul-searching and soul-affirming doc. It is one that doesn't exist in a passive fly-on-the-wall sense, with a hero that lives up to his namesake 100%.

I use a word like proponent for Thalente over subject, because subject feels too passive. As a story, this is a coming-of-age tale, but one that's still unfolding. We begin on the streets of Durban, South Africa, hearing from Thalente and the locals of the days he spent on the streets, all but orphaned as a little boy, finding solace in skate parks. Much of this tale is narrated by Thalente himself, an introspective, well-spoken young man with a spark and a wit to match his clear skate skills. Johns and her crew pick up some time after Thalente has kicked a drug addiction and moved in with his mentor/sister and the film's co-producer Tammy Lee-Smith. Johns becomes a more active participant in her own film when it is decided that Thalente will move with her to Los Angeles, where he can begin to focus on his skateboarding career proper.

From here on out the film follows Thalente as moves through his concerns around street skating versus park skating, learning to read on an adult level, getting his learner's permit, and building relationships with a plethora of skateboarding pros, from Tony Hawk to Kenny Anderson. Thalente's cocky sure-footed nature in the skate parks of Durban begins to crumble once in Los Angeles. That spark we were so drawn to begins to dim. His new life is daunting, but soon enough, because he just keeps skating, Thalente circles back around to that swagger he held before and comes out smiling like never before.

Johns' filmmaking isn't anything out of the ordinary for a documentary. The work is structured around a lot of candid footage, skate footage, narration and a few talking heads that build to an inspirational crescendo with Thalente getting his first job as a skate camp instructor. That may read as saccharine on the page, but the film is anything but. I Am Thalente is most of all about being kind to oneself no matter the circumstances you are in. The vibrant, infectious hero we have in Thalente gives us this in whole, with the high and lows, but most importantly in that gray area we usually exist in on most days.

After I left my screening I began to walk the streets of downtown Los Angeles, quite near locations where Thalente had skated in the film. Each time I heard that clack-scrape-whoosh sound behind me, a tingle went up my spine. Was it Thalente? Sharing with the people of Los Angeles his art, his passion... I could only hope that one of these days I would be so lucky to see him skate on by.    
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