It’s all wheels, concrete, and heart in Matthew Harris’ touching tribute to the famous East London skatepark, Rom. Rom Boys remembers the skating and BMXing fervour of the 1970s and ‘80s through those that lived its halcyon days and the place that made it possible.
Although there is a lingering feeling that Rom Boys never quite reaches an apex it could have, what Harris offers us is still a lively and memorable film that cares deeply about its subject, and encourages us to share its empathy.
Rom Boys—as the title suggests—is told largely through the eyes of the people that skated, rode, and lived at the park. From everyman Dion Penman to famous skateboarder Lance Mountain, the documentary’s impressive selection of interviews make it clear that Rom resonated far and wide. When we learn the lengths people travelled for this patch of concrete and why so many chose it as a second home, it quickly becomes hard to not be drawn to it too.
The rest of the story is illustrated with archival footage and other well-picked interviews from various stakeholders, who all help to paint a vivid picture of the many things that Rom is. It is a place of fun, camaraderie, and freedom, but also a site of heritage, community, and memory. In his well-shot and tightly edited expository documentary, Harris translates these varied but intersecting ideas quite successfully. He seems aware he is providing a narrative that most of his audience will know very little—if anything—about, and edits his opening sequence together astutely to mend that bridge. Some strange stylistic decisions and a slightly uneven structure threaten to distract from the story’s strong heart; but, once the boards are down and the leg grazes are being patched up, those flaws are forgiven as minor lapses in a work of great purpose.
It is a work of celebration and history and community—so much so that it does not really matter if you care too deeply about the sport. It is clear almost immediately that Harris’ film will not focus on a single protagonist or on the technical and aesthetic characteristics of skateboarding. Its protagonist is Rom.
We spend ample time learning about its construction, intricacies, memories and financial struggles, and what it offers skateboarders. And although the interviews do become personal, no individual is presented too intimately, because every account circles back to Rom’s famed concrete contours. This almost, at times, becomes frustrating, as the park is evidently brought alive by the people that frequented it. And while Harris does not neglect those people—far from it—some of the film’s more interesting themes may have resonated stronger if we had followed one or two of the individuals more closely.
So, there are moments when it feels the film may soon slip into an identity crisis by spreading itself too thin. Luckily, it never quite does. At a very tight 78 minutes, it manages to spin a lean narrative that may not develop into something truly weighty or moving, but equally feels full of enough intriguing ideas and histories to leave its mark.
In what feels like a throwaway comment, one skater remarks: “I’d have my ashes scattered here.” He—and every other Rom Boy—speaks about Rom with such a frank and non-negotiable affection, and Harris consistently finds the best place to weave their words into his larger story. As such, everything we learn—from Rom being listed as a national heritage site to the many injuries that skaters suffer—carries a genuine warmth. Never has concrete been made to seem so tender.
Rom Boys is lovingly told and guides its audience through an accessible and illuminating tale of community and togetherness. Its only flaw is not having the time—and potentially resources—to offer more insights into the many ideas and lives it touches on.
Words by Ben Faulkner
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