Nicola Marsh and Giovanni Reda’s riveting and inspiring portrait of trailblazing pro skateboarder Leo Baker, Stay on Board: The Leo Baker Story, received its world premiere at last month’s Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival, ahead of its global launch on Netflix this Thursday, August 11th. Produced by Alex Schmider (Changing the Game, Disclosure, Framing Agnes) and shot over several years, the film follows Baker as he is ultimately forced to chose to between his career and being his authentic self. When we meet him, in his late twenties, in private he’s known as Lee or Leo and uses he/they pronouns. Publicly though, he continues to take part in women’s skateboarding under his former name, and his skills have put him in the frame to compete for Team USA in the first-ever Olympics Women’s Street Skateboarding event at Tokyo 2020.
The stark disconnect between how Leo is viewed and discussed in his professional life, and how he exists and identifies as a trans nonbinary individual away from the spotlight, has become unbearable for him, and it is increasingly uncomfortable to watch play out as we get to know Leo. Essentially, the highly gendered arena of sports, branding and sponsorship have simultaneously amplified and stifled his journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. He says that he’s known his gender identity since he was a child, but the more he achieved success as a high profile skateboarder, the more challenging it became for him to fully embrace who he was in all aspects of his life. In some respects he’s put his life on hold for the past decade, including delaying getting the top surgery he wants.
Leo clearly realizes how important sharing his story is as he embraces becoming the high profile gender nonconforming representation that he never saw in the world growing up. He’s an open, highly engaging, and generous subject and the interviews that he gives in the film often feel more like personal video diary entries than documentary soundbites; particularly once the pandemic hits and filming continues. There are some particularly raw and moving sequences as Leo talks about the life-threatening distress that his gender dysphoria is causing him and we witness some of the challenges he experiences to get the healthcare treatment he needs. But Stay On Board defines Baker not so much by his trans nonbinary experience, as it does by his defiant courage to be himself no matter the cost, as his profile rises again in the lead up to the Olympics.
It’s thrilling to see Leo thrive as he not only creates space for an inclusive queer skateboarding community and a collaborative queer skateboarding brand—Glue—but begins to be embraced commercially for who he is, getting featured in major campaigns for the likes of Nike, and included in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater video game. Hawks is among the impressive roster of pro skaters who appear in the film to talk admiringly about Leo, as a picture emerges of a supportive community who might have achieved status and financial success, but haven’t lost their passion for the essence of what they love about it and the creativity that they find within it.
Leo’s girlfriend Melissa and his proud mother Donna, who are both supportive, also make for unguarded subjects. Melissa shares her concerns about how Leo’s transition might affect their relationship, while the couple’s differences in lifestyle come into sharp relief during the Covid-induced lockdown of 2020. Donna is open about her past struggles with drugs, at one point quipping that she came out the 1980s with three children and meth habit, and going on to recall the pain of being separated from Leo. Skateboarding has long been a refuge for young people with difficult homelives, and the film touches on the escape that Leo first discovered and still finds within it.
Baker’s story is a compelling one, and Marsh and Reda wisely allow it to unfold without imposing any unnecessary stylist flourishes or sensationalizing anything, but rather allowing the story to speak for itself and it is deeply powerful in its purity and simplicity. That’s not to say there aren’t some visually striking sequences, including those shot by Marsh of Leo skating through the streets of New York, as well as some exhilarating, sometimes excruciating, skateboarding footage of sublime tricks being landed along with some painful looking falls. As an outsider, the crux of skating appears to be as much about the falls, and getting over and beyond them, as it is about impressing with mastering a trick. It’s a process that we see Leo has taken into his own life, and his love of skateboarding has helped see him through. Stay On Board celebrates the perseverance of the human spirit and the empowerment of creating the life you want for yourself, no matter the consequences. Oh, and there’s a beautifully moving and cathartic scene, with an emotional Lady Gaga track playing on the radio, that’s right up there with Wayne’s World as one of the best car movie singalongs scenes ever. For another music highlight, make sure that you hit ‘watch credits’, to catch an ethereal and soothing original song, Hold Me Till We’re Home, co-written and performed by Baker.
By James Kleinmann
Stay on Board: The Leo Baker Story launches globally on Netflix on Thursday, August 11th.