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In Harm’s Way

Timeless Areas is a transcendent portrait of skating, surfing, and sobriety.

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There’s Elissa Steamer, icon of skateboarding, sitting on a patch of sidewalk. Knees to her chest. Back against the wall. Ciggie dangling from her fingertips. Her tight lips denote contemplation and annoyance. Her eyes evade the camera.

This photo—one of several Ed Templeton images that filmmaker Beth O’Rourke uses in her short doc, Timeless Areas—tells a great deal about its subject. The matted mane. The baggy clothes. The cancer stick. Steamer wears the armor of a 90s skate rat, balking at conventional society. To hell with any needs outside of a well-sauced curb and an adequate deck.

“Wake up, skate, get stoned, drink, repeat. For 15 years,” Steamer says onscreen. “If you’re fortunate enough…you can snap out of degenerate-um.” 

That gaze, though. 

O’Rourke’s documentary delivers us beyond the armor of wounds in Steamer’s eyes, picking up on her life two decades after her famous part in the well-regarded 1996 Toy Machine film Welcome to Hell. She’s since gotten sober, retired from skateboarding, and launched a towel brand called Gnarhunters. She’s newly obsessed with wave riding. “I guess my life kind of revolves around surfing these days,” Steamer says, flipping through a list of text messages re: the morning’s session. 

“Surfing marks a time in her life where a lot of pivotal things happen,” says O’Rourke of her film, shot over several weeks in 2015 with Director of Photography Jeff den Broeder. “It denotes a milestone [for Steamer] and it is healing. But not healing in the way, say, a yoga retreat is.”

While Timeless Areas is a classic hero’s journey that touches on an array of topics—Steamer’s childhood, her battle with addiction, her sexuality, her discomfort with being known as a “female skater” rather than simply a skater—it avoids tucking its subject’s life neatly into a traditional narrative arc. O’Rourke rides along for surf-checks as Steamer provides candid reflections over archival footage from home videos and old skate parts. It’s nuanced, messy, and more than a bit stochastic. An accurate portrayal of a person navigating the difficult work of being alive. 

“I’m so in awe of her bravery,” says O’Rourke. “Her ability to put herself in harm’s way, whether skating or with drugs or whatever. I told her, ‘I’m going to stick a camera in your face and ask a bunch of hard questions.’ She was like, ‘Let’s do it. I’m an open book.’” 

Steamer’s sobriety and infatuation with surfing emerged simultaneously. She did The Steps, and surfing fit in with that process. Scared of the ocean, surfing provided an opportunity to conquer fear. 

“If you skateboard,” says Steamer, “you’re a certain sort of freak that needs to be obsessed with something. It’s hours and hours of hitting your shins and twisting your ankles just to do a stunt with a piece of wood on wheels. [Laughs]. That’s how I approached surfing, too. Because I have that personality, I had a fire under me to get good at something.” 

O’Rourke’s film treats surfing as a signpost in Steamer’s life. Timeless Areas is a loving and lovable portrait of a self-professed skate rat who started surfing. It’s a film that transcends surf without trying to portray surfing as transcendent.

To watch Timeless Areas, click here.

Frame grab courtesy of Beth O’Rourke.