In a summer with an array of movies about womanhood and female identity — The Wife, Never Goin’ Back, Night Comes On, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, The Spy Who Dumped Me, Support the Girls — Skate Kitchen feels like a hybrid. The film from Crystal Moselle (who previously directed the documentary The Wolfpack, about six brothers locked away in a Manhattan apartment and only interacting with the world through movies) is a fusion of the hazy, gauzy, languid cinematography of a Sofia Coppola film and the girls-against-boys vibe of the first Pitch Perfect, a story of an introverted girl on the outside of a divided subculture who wants into that world.
Moselle has a background in documentary filmmaking, and that shows in Skate Kitchen, which is intimate, immersive, and poetic, following 18-year-old Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a young Latina woman from Long Island who has quietly been amassing a following on Instagram thanks to her skateboarding videos. When the film opens, she’s suffered a devastating injury that horrifies her mother, who forces her to promise never to skate again.
But Camille — quiet, observant, and ultimately resolute in her decision making — has no intentions of keeping that promise. Instead, she decides to finally take the next step in her skating and travel into New York City, where she finds her way to a skate park populated by the all-girl skating group Skate Kitchen. She recognizes them from their videos, they recognize her from her videos, and a tentative friendship is born, with Camille hovering in the margins of a tightly knit clan of young women who are always up for smoking a blunt, hitting a trick, and fighting with the boys who are either trying to fuck them or kick them out of the skating scene.
First to warm to Camille is Janay (Dede Lovelace), who introduces Camille to the other young women in their crew, particularly combative and unabashed Kurt (Nina Moran), introduced with the line “That girl just fingered me in the bushes, bro!”; Janay’s close friend Indigo (Ajani Russell), with bleached eyebrows that change color with nearly every scene; and camerawoman Ruby (Kabrina Adams), who wears a speaker as a pendant and is always encouraging the other girls to “get a clip” to put online. When they skate down sidewalks together, they take up the whole lane; they hit tricks in front of offended strangers, cutting off their walking paths; when a guy asks Kurt, “Hey, can you do an ollie?” her monotonous “No bro, I’m a poser, that’s why I have this shit. I thought this was just an accessory. It’s my purse,” sends the girls into riotous, derisive giggles.
Skate Kitchen is locked in a territory war with the young male skaters in their scene, and sometimes their altercations come to blows — especially when Kurt mocks Blake (CJ Ortiz), the de facto leader of the boys, by saying she slept with his mother, and another time when the boys urge the girls to go to the “kiddie pool.” But while Camille, who shares with Janay details of her tomboy youth and who lets slip details about herself that reveal a lack of female friendships (like when she’s shocked the other girls use tampons, hesitantly asking whether they’re toxic), revels in being surrounded by a group of like-minded young women, she’s also intrigued by Devon (Jaden Smith), one of the skater boys who hangs out with Blake.
What is unclear about Camille’s attraction to Devon, though, is whether she’s interested in him romantically or more intrigued by the way the boys skate — untethered, aggressive, unafraid. They’ll fall and get banged up and keep going, they’ll tangle with security guards trying to confiscate their boards, they’ll watch skating videos on loop in their dingy apartments with “FUCK TRUMP” scrawled on the walls. With Skate Kitchen, Camille is receiving female friendship and support that she’s never had in her life, but with the boys, she’s skating the way she wants to skate, pushing herself further than she ever has before. Which is more important to her? What kind of skater, what kind of person, does Camille want to be?
Moselle discovered these teenagers on the subway in New York City and from there built a narrative around them, dividing them into female and male friendship groups and exploring the rivalries and romantic tensions that would develop between two sides of a small subculture. Her depiction of women trying to succeed and support each other in a male-dominated space is a layered one, not only because of how realistic and relatable so many of the girls’ complaints are — the casualness with which they discuss a sexual assault is enraging, but unsurprising — but also because of the nuanced nature of these friendships. Both the girls and the boys are loyal to the extreme to each other, which makes Camille’s position so tenuous: Once she’s been accepted by Skate Kitchen, there is an implication that she should never befriend the boys, but at the same time, she isn’t part of the battle between the two sides, she’s just trying to skate. What does she owe her friends?
Vinberg may be a newcomer, but she does a good job portraying a young woman who is at first wide-eyed and hesitant and eventually more confident and bombastic, willing to take risks she wouldn’t have only a few weeks before, and man, can she skate. As Camille’s mother, Aleida Diaz brings the same kind of fiery intensity as she does on Orange is the New Black, and their complicated relationship — one that sometimes includes physical violence — is portrayed with an attempt at compassion for both sides. And Smith does the “cool guy” thing fine enough; he strikes a good pose and is believably aloof, and it makes sense in the film that Camille would be intrigued by someone like him.
Aside from the good work Moselle does with her script and with harnessing the ensemble’s performances, cinematographer Shabier Kirchner comes through by excellently capturing how these kids skate, how they move, the physicality of being on a board and the thrill and exhileration involved. And some moments in the film are just flat-out beautiful, like when Camille skates alone along a line of trees at dusk, leaning down low to feel the leaves rippling through her fingers as she glides.
“Where’s your posse at? Don’t you guys travel in a squad? Your rowdy-ass girl crew?” Devon asks Camille the first time they speak, and his diminishment of Skate Kitchen and Camille’s defense of them is the exact area Moselle explores in her narrative filmmaking debut. These girls smoke weed together, attend raucous parties together, have sex together (yes, there’s a sort of swinger-orgy thing going on at one point), and are as devoted to skating as they are to each other — the balance of individual desire with communal loyalty is a tricky one, and one Skate Kitchen examines with empathy, familiarity, and curiosity. Skate Kitchen feels like those final summer nights before school started again, aimless and sticky and wide-open and perfect because your friends were there. It’s evocative and entrancing, and worth seeking out.
Skate Kitchen is open in limited release around the U.S. You can find showtimes here.
Image sources (in order of posting): Magnolia, Magnolia, Magnolia