A scrappy documentary on skateboarding culture in Southern California during the ’80s, Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator is part VH1-style nostalgia trip and part sociological study of the darkest, bleakest kind: It goes from Vans to violence in less than 90 minutes. Along the way, director Helen Stickler tries to straighten out a tangle of difficult questions about young men in our culture: Why is it that most of them are able to play out their adolescent flirtations with violence and mayhem without really hurting anybody, while others wind up doing bloody or even fatal damage? Is it just luck that allows one kid to get the demons safely out of his system? Or do upbringing and circumstance and even genetics have more to do with it?

To that end, Stickler has found the perfect Exhibits A and B. First there’s the protagonist of the film, Mark “Gator” Rogowski, a former pro skater now serving a 31-years-to-life sentence for the rape and murder of Jessica Bergsten, a friend of his ex’s. For a short time nearly 20 years ago, Rogowski was the toast of the skateboarding world, a charismatic kid who turned a racy image and a daredevil style into a fat endorsement deal with a company called Visions. But drinking and a tumultuous relationship with his upwardly mobile girlfriend, Brandi McClain, threw him off that track, and it all went quickly downhill from there.

On the other side of fate stands Tony Hawk, who, thanks to a number of savvy marketing moves over the past decade, is now the most famous skateboarder in the world. Hawk never takes center stage in the movie, but he’s always there as a kind of counterweight to Rogowski. Fair where Rogowski is dark—and, in the film’s older footage, baby-faced and floppy-haired next to an already more hardened Gator—Hawk was joined closely with his rival and friend throughout the early portions of the film. They skated together on ramps all over Southern California and then, as their fame grew, in Europe and Japan. They wound up buying adjacent houses out in the avocado fields of Fallbrook, between San Diego and Los Angeles, where, as one interviewee recalls, they were so bored that they sent “butt faxes” back and forth to each other. Before they were 20, they were both making more money than they knew what to do with, competing professionally at something they’d been doing for so long that it felt like second nature.

Hawk’s present-day interviews take place in the garden in front of his towering new house, where the gables practically outnumber the palm trees. He’s shot from below, Citizen Kane style, in a way that makes the house look like a nouveau-riche Xanadu. Wearing a short haircut and a Gappy sweater and speaking with polish and confidence, Hawk here makes one thing clear: The rebel heroes of pro skateboarding are rebels only by comparison with their classmates in Carlsbad and Santa Barbara, their flirtations with law-breaking and fast living something less than truly dangerous. The 35-year-old Hawk, now completely nonthreatening, has become the grown-up and perfectly marketable face of the sport in the 21st century.

Because California law doesn’t allow inmates to be filmed, the present-day Rogowski appears in the film only as a gravelly, disembodied, and regretful voice. Over the phone, we hear the unsteady logic of a man who is still trying to sort out exactly where things went wrong.

Before we get any real answers about why Rogowski turned out the way he did, though, Stickler provides a light but very entertaining hour or so on the rise of skateboarding in the ’80s; the differences between ramp (or “vert”) skating and street skating, which rose to knock ramp stars like Rogowski off their pedestals as the decade ended; and ’80s fashion, especially the clothes worn by pro skaters and the girls—inevitably named Brandi or Tiffany or Heather—who flocked to them like groupies. A lot of the footage in these sections is fantastic, including some shots showing Rogowski in a vain attempt to learn the sidewalk tricks of street skating. He winds up throwing his board and cursing, throwing his board and cursing, and so on and on.

What ’80s skate culture produced, Stickler suggests, was a bunch of adolescents who were encouraged by everyone around them to be as irresponsible as possible, because that kind of behavior was very good for business. In one memorable interview, Rogowski, already infamous for punching a cop at a skateboarding event in Virginia Beach, Va., reclines next to a pool, wearing Ray Bans and a crooked grin. “I’m one of the most outspoken jerks in the industry,” he says proudly to the camera. “I love getting arrested….I also think I’m one of the most illegal skaters on the circuit.”

Of course, there’s illegal and there’s illegal. Taking a swing at a cop to boost your hardass image, or getting drunk and jumping off a construction crane, as Rogowski did in Germany, is one thing. Tying a young woman to a bed and repeatedly raping her, stuffing her into a surf bag, strangling her, and then dumping her body in the desert is something else entirely.

Given the fact that most viewers know going in that Rogowski is in jail for a violent crime, and that Stickler makes no effort to hide the details of the murder in the early minutes of the film, the way she structures the film to explain his turn to violence is puzzling. For most of Stoked, Rogowski comes across as a smart, cocky, and slightly out-of-control kid. But when we get to the section of the movie that details the murder, Stickler unleashes all kinds of information about Rogowski that should have come earlier. She suggests that his recipe for disaster included a tendency toward stalking, a weird and zealous attraction to fundamentalist Christianity, and a father who ran out on the family when Rogowski was 3. Coming so late and in such a rush, these new revelations give the movie a weirdly lopsided quality: Instead of building up to the crime, Stoked turns Rogowksi from delinquent to monster in the blink of an eye.

If Stickler can quite make her argument hold, she does effectively convey the sadness of Rogowski’s story—which is underscored by the fact that, thanks to the X Games and a nostalgia for skateboarding’s purer old days, ramp skating is back in fashion and again awash in money. Rogowski, it turns out, didn’t really have to learn a new way of skating after all: He just needed to be patient—and peaceful—until skateboarding and its fans came back around. CP