When you think of skateboarding culture, a working-class London suburb is probably not the first place that comes to mind, but that’s exactly where the mecca of European skateboarding emerged in the late 1970s. Matt Harris’ documentary Rom Boys: 40 Years of Rad explores the unlikely rise and even unlikelier legacy of the Rom Skatepark, a skateboarding complex opened in 1978 to capitalize on the growing fad among teens, with facilities built to resemble the skateboarding surfaces of Southern California, including a backyard-style pool that was never filled with water.
Harris brings together dozens of interview subjects to talk about the joy and community they experienced at Rom as teens and the continued efforts to keep the park open. Those efforts have been an ongoing challenge for years, as the initial skateboarding craze faded, and the sport then moved into the mainstream, with skateboarding courses at most public parks. The dedicated Rom fans make a strong case for the park’s uniqueness, and Harris has access to plenty of vintage footage showing the park in its heyday, full of skateboarders and, later, BMX riders.
Harris also spotlights some engaging personalities, middle-aged guys (and yes, virtually every on-camera subject is male) who’ve been coming to Rom for decades, who never gave up on their love of skateboarding or BMX biking. The movie presents Rom as a cultural and architectural institution, detailing the process of designating it for historic preservation, as only the second skatepark in the world to receive that kind of status. The personal and historical significances of the park are intertwined, and Harris understands what Rom means to the people he talks to, and to the community at large. Even the American skateboarders he interviews distinctly remember their visits to Rom, whether multiple times or just once, decades ago.
There are so many people singing Rom’s praises that it sometimes gets a little hard to keep track of them, and the interviews can get a little repetitive, with different talking heads all essentially saying the same thing. The movie spins its wheels for part of its slim 78-minute running time, before rushing through some major developments toward the end, including a 2018 fire that destroyed some of Rom’s buildings, and recent fundraising efforts to keep the park open.
Harris also takes his time moving the focus from skateboarding to BMX, when both seem essential to Rom’s success and its legacy, and there is plenty to explore in the overlapping subcultures. Even if the structure is shaky at times, though, Rom Boys is consistently entertaining to watch, and it’s easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm that the subjects share for Rom and for skateboarding and BMX. There’s still a sense of childlike wonder to the way these guys approach the sports they first discovered in their youth.
Rom Boys doesn’t capture the visceral excitement of a film like Stacy Peralta’s Dogtown and Z-Boys, and it doesn’t feature any subjects who went on to become international stars (the closest it comes is Gumball 3000 founder Maximillion Cooper, husband of rapper Eve). But in its quieter way, it shows the pervasive influence of action sports, that a pastime practiced by laid-back teens in Southern California found its way to England, and inspired an entire generation of outcasts and misfits, all of whom found a home at Rom.