Leo Baker skateboards to success in “Stay on Board” documentary

Non-binary skateboarder Leo Baker finds comfort — and success — in their favorite sport.

The compassionate documentary, “Stay on Board,” chronicles a pivotal time in the life of competitive non-binary skateboarder Leo Baker. Filmmakers Nicola Marsh and Giovanni Reda use impressive clips of Baker skating, as well as photographs, interviews, and observational footage as they process their gender dysphoria while maintaining their love of skating.

Baker has long been a top skateboarder in female competition. Baker is so skilled that they were selected to represent the women’s skateboarding team at the 2020 Olympics. It was a historic achievement, as it was the first year that skateboarding was recognized as an official Olympic sport. As one colleague notes about Baker, “They are capable, but is their heart in it?”

Baker is noticeably conflicted. They want to transition, and participating in the competition would delay their long-awaited top surgery. Moreover, publicly coming out as trans could risk losing lucrative endorsements and sponsorships.

When asked in an interview about fear of a backlash for coming out as trans, Baker does not answer. But after they post their pronouns on social media, there are some ugly, hateful responses.

The concerns Baker has about their future in the sport are valid, and “Stay on Board” is interesting when it touches on how Baker was marketed as a female skater and was asked to dress feminine and have long blonde hair, as if to appeal to an underserved demographic. This also gets at how athletics are gendered without directly addressing the current hot-button issue of transgender athletes in female sports.

The “split life” Baker leads — in their public-facing career as a professional skater and being their authentic self “at home” — certainly takes its toll on the athlete. While it may be gratifying to be a visibly queer athlete on a global scale, Baker also claims to “feel out of place” in the sport, which they feel lacks inclusivity. More could have been done with this statement as several female skaters are interviewed, but mostly they talk about Baker.

The film also does not show how Baker’s gender dysphoria negatively impacted their skating in competition as they travel far and wide, but it does have a serious impact on their mental health. Some of the most difficult moments show Baker trying to reconcile how they do not want to put their life (i.e., top surgery) on hold just to compete in the Olympics. “I’ve stayed Lacey way too long,” Baker says, referring to their name assigned at birth. Much of the film’s drama pivots on this decision to skate for Team USA or not.

Mostly, however, “Stay on Board,” feels like a hagiography, accentuating the positive. Baker serves as a role model for queer skaters, and they are seen leading workshops in New York. They also cofound a company, Glue Skateboards, with queer skaters Cher Strauberry and Stephen Ostrowski, which is historic. And Baker gets validation by being featured in one of Tony Hawk’s video games. There are other significant accomplishments which are best left for viewers to discover.

Baker is likable, especially when nesting with their girlfriend, Melissa, as COVID shuts the world down (and delays the 2020 Olympic games). Baker’s relationship with their mom is also touching, especially when a story is recounted about how Baker’s winnings on the tournament circuit provided the biggest source of household income; there are few options outside of competition for female skaters to earn money or have careers.

While the 27-year-old Baker does not want to live in the past, there are moments of nostalgia in “Stay on Board” that range from reminiscing about the family atmosphere of Pawnshop Skate Company, Baker’s hometown store, to being honored at their high school with a Hall of Fame ceremony, where they cringe during an awkward moment where someone refers to them as female.

It is not a spoiler to reveal that Baker did get top surgery, and the film documents this process in a way that expresses Leo’s joy at finally be(com)ing who they are. If “Stay on Board” has a money shot, it is not Baker doing a kickflip, or being honored, or named to the Olympic team. It is them smiling while skating shirtless through the city streets.

Skating is what makes Leo Baker happy. It is, they say in the opening moments of the film, “what has gotten me through everything I’ve experienced in my life.” Seeing Baker finally free and living authentically is more inspiring than any billboard or medal. And Leo Baker would be the first to agree with that.

“Stay on Board: The Leo Baker Story” | Directed by Nicola Marsh and Giovanni Reda | Available August 11 on Netflix