Reviewed by Charles Bivona
If you’re looking for a feel good documentary about a rugged loner overcoming impossible odds, Natalie Johns’ I Am Thalente may be too honest for you. For, although the homeless title character, Thalente Biyela, is skilled enough on a skateboard to win the admiration of Tony Hawk and other pros, this documentary never allows its audience to forget the trauma, the noticeable scars of Thalente’s childhood on the streets of South Africa.
Parallel to his skateboarding journey, there runs the narrative of his struggles with reading and writing, basic math, and essential life skills. In one painful scene, we see him curl up in a ball of panic, nearly crying when his tutor suggests he get a driving permit.
Despite these limitations causing him visible frustration, Thalente speaks insightfully, in matter-of-fact terms about coping with his childhood, the culture shock of coming to the United States, and the struggle to find his place in the professional skateboarding industry.
His skateboard was, in childhood, how his mind survived the terrifying experiences he describes. So painful are these anecdotes, they often lead the audience to see Thalente as that heroic loner we all long to be, only to remind us repeatedly how much time and emotional energy others have invested in his struggle. This varying cast of supporting characters, who all see something of themselves in this lost boy, selflessly move to help him in whatever way they can.
I Am Thalente is the story of a young man who turned psychological survival into his personal form of expression. It will be especially salient for young artists, for the underlying theme, repeated like a mantra, is that no one pursues their passion without a lot of help from a community of equally dedicated people. Without such a support system— without the guidance of passionate mentors— any young person, no matter how gifted, will remain forever stuck in survival mode.
Watch I Am Thalente on Seed&Spark now.