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Crystal Moselle’s new film Skate Kitchen opens on Long Island teen Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) as she carves up a Lower East Side park on her board. She’s weightless, carefree, in her element – until she wipes out, and hard. She sustains a particularly intimate injury known as getting “credit carded” (give it a moment’s thought), and starts to bleed profusely from between her legs. The symbolism gets right up in the viewer’s face: skating is pain, and pain makes women out of girls.
That’s pretty much the mission statement of Skate Kitchen, both the movie and the real-life all-female crew from which it got its title and cast. Moselle has set what would otherwise be a pat coming-of-age story apart from its peers by placing it within an unexplored corner of New York’s downtown skate rat culture, where the punk nihilism of the 90s has been replaced by a spiky feminist ethic. The kids of Kids are out of the picture here, replaced by a girl gang that frankly discusses menstruation and the definition of “gaslighting” when they’re not videotaping each other doing ollies. Moselle last peered into an insular Big Apple bubble with her documentary The Wolfpack, and while she straddles the dividing line between fiction and non-fiction this time around, her aim to shed light on an unacknowledged underground remains the same. She happened upon the Skate Kitchen’s exploits through Instagram’s Discover feature, and thanks to her, we don’t have to.
Though Camille’s passion makes for an unlikely pairing with her gender, the rest of her life roughly resembles that of any other city kid. She likes testing the boundaries set by her tough-love mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez), sneaking out and courting danger as youths are wont to do. She’s formulating a sexual identity, secure enough to firmly answer a friend needling her about her preferences in genitals and yet not quite secure enough to act on it. She’s not all that into drugs, but not ironclad about it either. Vinberg makes for a fine lump of un-molded clay, her in-progress air reinforced by the filler syllables and mumbles of a nonprofessional actor. Like everyone else going through the high school years, she’s figuring herself out, and the Skate Kitchen clique offers her an identity she gladly accepts.
Moselle is at her most astute when concentrating on the fragile social dynamics that govern the tribes adolescents divide themselves into for survival’s sake. The feeling of belonging can be a potent narcotic, and Camille gets an intoxicating hit of it the first time one of her heroes speaks to her like a peer. There’s strength in numbers, and Camille feels like she owns the street when she’s gliding through the city causing junior-league havoc with her friends. The Perks of Being a Wallflower described this sensation as feeling “infinite”; Camille might use similar language, tacking a “bro” onto the sentence.
Just as one false step can turn a 360 into a skinned knee, it only takes one faux pas to get a new member cast out just as quickly as they joined. Camille runs afoul of one of her new comrades in developing a crush on her ex (a dye-headed Jaden Smith), granting the film a semblance of conflict it doesn’t really need. Keen viewers can perceive the invisible hand of narrative pushing them together despite their lack of chemistry, and the resultant drama feels contrived in comparison to the comfortable naturalism between the girls. Likewise, Camille’s combative relationship with her mother sticks out as a writerly construct, forcing the usual indie drama arc structure onto a subject that thrives when just chillin’. Skate Kitchen falters whenever it starts to act like a movie instead of the observational slice of life that Moselle’s so adept at capturing.
But for the most part, she sticks to the good stuff, filling out her run time with montage after montage of magic hour footage following the skaters through their natural habitat. The soundtrack repeating “young, dumb and broke” like a mantra lays bare the appeal of Camille’s adopted lifestyle: no worries, no responsibilities and no trifling boys to come between them. It’s an appealing prospect for any teenager, and in one fleeting shot trained on a wide-eyed child watching the Skate Kitchen crew fly by, the film dares to suggest its own power to inspire the young women who watch it. Call it presumptuous (it is), but the aspirational spirit behind that choice is sound enough. This is an evolved girlhood, where femininity can mean whatever and solidarity matters over all else. The ease with which Camille joins her makeshift family is the most inviting aspect of all, a come-as-you-are attitude tacitly extended to anyone who buys a board directly after leaving the theater. All women are welcome; the only price of admission to their world is the ability to kickflip.
- Skate Kitchen is released in the US on 10 August and in the UK on 28 September
Source: The Guardian
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