Skate Kitchen, 2018.
Directed by Crystal Moselle.
Starring Rachelle Vinberg, Jaden Smith, Jules Lorenzo, Nina Moran, Ardelia Lovelace, Tashiana Washington, Malachi Omega, Brenn Lorenzo, Taylor Gray, Kabrina Adams, Nico Hiraga, Judah Lang, and Elizabeth Rodriguez.
A teenaged skateboarder makes friends with a bunch of other skateboarding girls in New York City.
Writer and director Crystal Moselle made her way to the big screen with, by far, one of the more intriguing documentaries made this decade The Wolfpack, which followed the lives of a group of young adult brothers who had never been allowed to leave their apartment room growing up, resulting in all sorts of pop-culture (especially classic movies) informing their senses and upbringing far more than their unreasonably restrictive parents ever did. Her sophomore feature, Skate Kitchen is an authentically portrayed look at a posse of teenage female skateboarders (they exist for real to my knowledge, and the actors are all skateboarders, so it’s possibly also semi-autobiographical) that employs the same directorial tactics as a documentary; the kickflips and ollies are all captured with a homegrown handheld quality to them complete with shaky camera movements, the girls all wear name-brand clothing and dress the part of tomboys, and Moselle also allows a number of dialogue exchanges to run long, perhaps to the point of rambling, in an effort to grow us closer to the lifestyle on display.
Unfortunately, similar to that documentary, Moselle is also unable to take this narrative picture anywhere truly interesting or not formulaic. Relocated somewhere in New York and living with her mother in what is already a fragile relationship, Camille (real-life skateboarder Rachelle Vinberg delivering a performance playing to her extremely believable facial expressions and body language, while also obviously having the physicality and amateurish representation of boarding skills down) locates the titular Skate Kitchen tightknit band of rebellious outsiders while browsing social media, naturally introducing herself and earning her way into good company.
Quickly, a push and pull dynamic seems to develop; Camille is assuredly a lonely young girl desperately seeking to find her place in the world, but it’s not really quite evident if this really is the group of friends for her. Sure, they hang with the men riding and pushing forward with feminist strength, all coming from various cultural backgrounds and sexual orientations, but there are small moments such as Camille awkwardly present during what amounts to an orgy also littered with drugs, implying that maybe she doesn’t belong here either. Also telling of this theory is a shot of the ragtag group strolling through the streets of New York all relatively close to one another, but with Camille noticeably intentionally off to the side until another member gently pulls her closer by the shoulder while smiling. Regardless of where Camille actually does fit in, it’s little observations like this that make Skate Kitchen standout as a worthy, above-average self-discovery narrative. Once again, give additional credits to the breakthrough turn from Rachelle Vinberg.
Pulling her away from her newfound friends is, of course, a boy, specifically Devon (played by Jaden Smith who gives a surprisingly strong performance), who also previously dated and had a falling out with another member of the group. Gee, I wonder what will happen here. To be fair, the writing keeps things grounded; these are irresponsible teenagers that don’t always make the best decisions, but you still feel for their relationship woes based on lack of experience and being young. Nevertheless, it all expands the arc of Camille into something larger beyond what we actually see.
It’s doled out in some organically placed exposition that Camille has moved from living with her father to her mother, clearly feeling no strong bond to either one (in an excellently delivered monologue Camille recounts how unwanted womanly body changes despite wanting to remain being able to pass for a boy was one of the defining reasons she felt she needed to move away from her father and now have a mother), leading to her now ditching family completely to carve out a life of her own with her newly made friends, and from there looking towards a possible future with Devon. There’s no question how this is going to end (probably Moselle’s weakest strength telling an original narrative), but it’s still admirable how large-scale a coming-of-age story this is while always remaining restrained and focused on exploring skateboarding culture.
Skate Kitchen often likes to stop progressing the narrative in order to depict trickster montages set to wondrous guitar riffs. There’s a scene where life begins to not go Camille’s way at all, which she attempts to remedy by skating harder and more aggressively. It’s arguably the defining segment of who she is as a human being. Her determination and resiliency to not only discover her place in life, but garner skill as a skateboarder is beyond respectable; the film begins with her botching grinding a railing with the skateboard inadvertently crashing into her crotch (a wipeout another character describes as “credit-carding”) causing scary amounts of blood to pour down her leg. To these people, such injuries are just a minor setback more than a sign of failure.
Skate Kitchen doesn’t really have anything particularly interesting or new to say about entering adulthood, but the raw and gritty skateboarding community lensed through a poetic style separates itself from the rest of the pack. It’s also oozing with authenticity and a moving lead performance from newcomer Rachelle Vinberg. Consider it the skateboarding version of American Honey. Crystal Moselle continues proving to have a knack for doing justice filming abnormal types of people, but still needs to hone her overall storytelling craft. Regardless, I eagerly await whatever disenfranchised community she tackles telling a story around next.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com