REVIEW: ‘Stay on Board: The Leo Baker Story’ (2022) Is Intimate and Powerful All at Once

★ ★ ★ ★

“Equally heartbreaking and uplifting, ‘Stay on Board’ is a must-see”

When athletes open up about struggling to keep their professional and personal life separate it usually has to do with trying to reach various career goals, but what happens when this struggle is about survival rather than achievements?

Leo Baker gained popularity in the women’s skateboarding scene from a young age, earning him acclaim as one of the most promising within the street discipline. However, unbeknownst to the public, Baker struggled with being defined differently than what aligned with his reality. As his career began to cement itself, the disconnect between his authentic self and created public persona started to escalate, and the inner crisis of being constantly misperceived was about to become unbearable.

Taking off in 2019, Stay on Board: The Leo Baker Story documents this struggle while following Baker in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics, including his decision to resign from the U.S. Women’s Olympic Skateboarding Team in 2020 and publicly coming out as trans.  

Leo Baker shown on his skateboard, pushing down a street in New York City. He's wearing all black and sports a buzz cut. He's caught in motion, right foot firmly on his board as his left one is in the air after pushing it into the ground to gain speed.
Image courtesy of Netflix

The documentary shines when it opts for the intimate, using handheld cameras, close-ups, and less sterile backdrops. Sometimes the most moving moments are the ones captured in passing, like establishing how powerful language is each time Baker is misgendered. With a combination of frustration and pain deeply intertwined in his facial expression, Baker unambiguously wears his feelings on his sleeve. Stay on Board is a raw look at his journey as it unravels before the viewers’ eyes and, ultimately, this results in it being both difficult to watch and undeniably authentic. 

While Oski poignantly addressed how the joy of skating started to disappear with the increasing pressure in the lead-up to the Olympics, Stay on Board is instead a grim showcase of how there can be so much heartbreak attached to something one loves doing, as it specifically criticises how hurtful the binarism of the competition world is. Although Baker is privately known as “Lee” or “Leo,” when viewers meet him, he’s still publicly known as “Lacey,” since his career depends on the profitable images created by the industry of him as a “female skateboarder”. 

As Stay on Board references the hurt originating from feeling forced to perform accordingly to the gendered fields within skateboarding, the documentary makes a refreshing case for how freeing it would be to move beyond categorisations in general. During a photoshoot, Baker’s friend and fellow professional skateboarder Alexis Sablone underlines how uncomfortable it feels when people continuously put a noticeably strong emphasis on them belonging within the “ladies’ category” of skateboarding when they’re all simply skateboarders. 

Baker seen sitting outside in front of a display window of a store. He is wearing lightly coloured shoes, black pants and is holding his white shirt in his hands as his naked upper body is shown. He is sitting on his skateboard looking ahead with a neutral facial expression.
Image courtesy of Netflix

Subtly yet effectively, Stay on Board presents the internal journey so that it becomes accessible for everyone, even those with little familiarity with its themes. This success is particularly attributed to Baker, who proves to be a very generous subject, and the vulnerability of the people close to him. At one point, his girlfriend shares her concerns about how Baker’s transition might affect their relationship, while his mother, although supportive, admits she sometimes still struggles with the adjustment. 

Directed by Nicola Marsh and Giovanni Reda, Stay on Board packs a powerful punch impossible to ignore. Its only real weakness is its 73-minute runtime, which — at few yet notable instances — feels stretched thin. Even though it’s predominantly well-paced and uses its material effectively, it could have featured tighter editing at times; for instance, in the inclusion of the early days of the 2020 pandemic shutdown. Though compelling, within the context of Stay on Board, it feels like a prioritisation that’s slightly misguided and misplaced.

Being unapologetically oneself is one of the bravest things someone can do in life, especially since the pressures to conform are constant. Yet, for people who have never had to fight for their right to exist, it’s blatantly taken for granted. While transphobia unfortunately exists in any field, it’s unsettling how much pushback the trans community is currently facing within skateboarding and, in particular, within competitions.

As the debate about trans athletes continues, Stay on Board comes across as crucial and affirming, and puts a face to one of the real-life people whose life is affected by transgender inequality and discrimination. From dysphoria to euphoria, it’s unthinkable to imagine viewers not being invested in Baker’s transition. When released from his top surgery, joking and singing Lady Gaga in the car, he radiates happiness and, from then on, carries himself differently. How can some people not want that freedom for other human beings?

Baker shown in focus in a close-up, smiling towards someone outside of frame. He's wearing a black cap and a black-and-white striped shirt. Beside him out of focus is Stephen Ostrowski, wearing a black beanie, a black shirt and a yellow knitted vest. They're outside, with blue skies, clouds and trees are visible.
Image courtesy of Netflix

Equally heartbreaking and uplifting, Stay on Board is a must-see for everyone with access to a Netflix account. Showing a person who is undoubtedly much happier when they no longer have to compromise on who they are, the documentary concludes on a hopeful note, which brings comfort and encouragement to viewers. Again and again, Baker proves his perseverance — consistently mirrored in his skating — and chooses to change the stance of the industry from within; for instance, creating queer skateboarding company Glue with friends Cher Strauberry and Stephen Ostrowski. 

When Baker resigns, Ostrowski exclaims, “Do you know what’s crazier than doing the Olympics? Saying ‘fuck the Olympics!’” Besides being one of the most pleasingly cathartic moments, it’s an important reminder that encapsulates the message of Stay on Board — it’s never too late for one to prioritise themselves and push everything aside that doesn’t have their best interest in mind. Baker, clearly aware of how important his story is though it’s only one of many, generously shares his experience so that someone will hopefully see what he never saw while growing up. After all, when one liberates themselves, they automatically liberate others to follow. 

Director: Nicola Marsh, Giovanni Reda

Producer: Melissa Bueno-Woerner, Jennifer Goodridge

Cast: Leo Baker, Donna Baker, Alexis Sablone, Melissa Bueno-Woerner, Alex White, Tony Hawk, Vanessa Torres, Cher Strauberry, Stephen Ostrowski

Release Date: Aug 11, 2022

Available on: Netflix