Most filmmakers’ impulse when setting narrative films in a skateboarding community is to treat skateboarding itself as the subject of the story. Whether it’s as a historically-minded hagiography (Lords of Dogtown) or a quick cash-in on the sub-culture’s marketability (Thrashin’) skateboarding cinema often treats its setting as a narrow-minded novelty, a highly specific range of imagery that’s interesting enough on its own to require no substance under its surface pleasures. Skate Kitchen grinds a thin rail between indulging in that for-its-own-sake novelty imagery and telling an emotionally resonant coming of age story that uses skateboarding as a placeholder for any kind of youthful awakening in confidence, independence, and self-identity. The movie’s most transcendent, memorable sequences are fully submerged in the simple pleasure of skateboard performers filmed with professional skill, but it could have been just as powerful if it were set in the world of tennis, fencing, or competitive foosball. It’s a great movie first and a great skateboarding movie second, a rarity.
Suburban doldrums & parental overbearance weigh on a young teen protagonist who cares far more intensely about watching clips of an all-femme skating crew on Instagram then she does about the immediate world around her. Against her mother’s orders, she sneaks away with her board to NYC by train, meeting up with the Skate Kitchen crew she idolizes, quickly being assimilated into their ranks. There isn’t much plot beyond this initial set-up; the film instead carefully contrasts the intense emotional bonding & betrayals of teenage life with the serene beauty of young women skateboarding around NYC. Although the technology & terminology may be different, Skate Kitchen feels at home with similar Big City coming of age stories like Girlhood & KIDS, except with a much more mannered, less volatile emotional palette. The transition from suburban boredom to boarding around NYC is like Dorothy stepping into the Technicolor landscape of Oz, which is more than drastic enough for the film to get by without resorting to the more sensationalist dramatic details of either Girlhood or KIDS, even if it’s trafficking in similar terrain.
Director Crystal Moselle is entering the world of narrative filmmaking with Skate Kitchen, her second feature after the cinephiliac documentary The Wolfpack. Her debut was often criticized for presenting a fuzzy version of the truth (I even personally called it “just beyond the reach of believability”). It’s wonderful to see her lean into that documentation grey area in its follow-up, which features and is named after a real-life skateboarding crew. The Skate Kitchen have been individually assigned fictional character names in the film, but as a collective they’re essentially playing themselves: an all-femme crew of skateboarders pallin’ around NYC in pursuit of video clips worthy of broadcasting their talents to the world through social media. Rachel Vinberg (as the protagonist Camille) and Nina Moran (as comic relief/consummate shit-stirrer Kurt) are particular standouts, outshining even professional actors Elizabeth Rodriguez & Jaden Smith. That’s partly a result of their natural charisma & exhibitionism, but also due to Moselle’s talent for crafting emotionally resonant, authentic-feeling stories out of real-life Characters. In both The Wolfpack & Skate Kitchen, Moselle has found highly specific, naturally fascinating collaborators and turned their lives into emotionally engaging art just askew from the center of true-life. At this pace, she’s shaping up to have an incredible body of work in just a handful of pictures.
A lot has changed in skateboarding culture since the 80s cash-in of Thrashin’. The fashion, the gender divides, and the terminology of skateboarding are almost unrecognizable between that film & this more artful update (which would have been titled Valid if it were made with that 80s mindset). Both films, matter how authentic, serve as a snapshot of their times, saying just as much about the 1980s & the 2010s as they do about skateboarding. Skate Kitchen doesn’t offer much that you wouldn’t expect from a small budget coming of age drama packed with “non-professional” actors, but the specificities of those personalities & the 2010s NYC skateboarding culture they traffic in allows for frequent moments of beauty & emotional resonance. Old-line skateboarding movies treat the culture as a marketable novelty, whereas Skate Kitchen treats it as a community worth documenting & making familiar though emotional storytelling. Honestly, both tactics are worthwhile in their own way because, on a basic level, skateboarding just looks incredibly cool on camera. Still, it’s a pleasure to see the skateboarding movie emotionally mature at least a little, while still holding onto its prankish spirit of teenage rebellion.