This review originally ran during the LA Film Festival, 6/19/15

With a name like Thalente (pronounced “Talent”), it would seem as if success was a matter of destiny.

Yet despite having such a fortuitous and foreshadowing birth name, success and fame were perhaps the farthest things on the mind of Thalente Biyela, a South African-born, then 14-year-old skateboarder – that is, until he was approached by none other than skate legend Tony Hawk. Impressed by his moves at the Indigo skate camp in the Zulu tribal region of South Africa, Hawk asked Thalente if he could send him free clothing and gear.

“No, you can’t,” Thalente replies. “I live on the street.”

He may look like your typical 21-year-old skater, with his five-panel hat and skate brand t-shirts, but once he speaks, it’s obvious that his wisdom far surpasses the streets. Director Natalie Johns brings the journey of this young man, from 17-year-old homeless heroin addict to professional skater to the big screen, in the honest, uplifting, and redemptive award-winning documentary, I Am Thalente.

With support from Thalente’s best friend and maternal figure Tammy Lee-Smith, also a friend of the director, she and Johns help Thalente create a DIY skate video, with hopes of catching the eye of someone in the industry to launch his career. And take notice of the video they did, as pro skaters Colin Kennedy and Kenny Anderson are shown as just a few of the people who get Thalente to move to Los Angeles and become his unofficial mentor.

The film documents Thalente’s struggles as he moves and assimilates into American culture, both in his personal and professional life. Having not attended school since he was ten, Thalente is shown struggling to keep up with his math and English work, even with the help of a tutor. Though he also is shown balancing other areas of normal teenage life, between getting his driving permit with learning how to street skate, and even pursuing his first girlfriend.

Throughout the film, his emotions range from frustration to angst, to gratitude, all the while taking to his skateboard as his only means of release and self-expression. Johns doesn’t spend too much time delving into Thalente’s backstory, only dropping breadcrumbs throughout the film that, once we piece them all together, stand as a highly dramatic story. It would have been an easy pull at the emotional heartstrings to focus more time on his troubled upbringing, but Johns makes it clear that this story isn’t about dwelling on the past, but rather, focusing on the future.

The simplicity of the camera moves combined with the array of skate footage and personal interviews create incredible storytelling; the genuine good feeling that comes from everyone involved is infectious, and you will leave the theater more optimistic of humanity.

This isn’t a “skateboard movie,” but a movie about one young man’s coming of age through the highs and lows of life, whose humility through it all is both courageous and sweet.
Maybe it’s his naiveness to the world, or maybe it’s his young age, but Thalente freely admits that he doesn’t think about the future, and takes his newfound success day by day. No matter where he ends up in the future (although one would assume and hope, it will be in the world of professional skating) it’s obvious that Thalente continues to live up to his name.

‘I Am Thalente’ is available on VOD Friday, 5/13