It’s always something special when a film comes to fruition purely by accident (or fate, if you prefer) and this much can be said for Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen. The director of the 2015 documentary The Wolfpack was riding a train in New York City when she spotted the women of the Skate Kitchen all-female skateboard group. From their initial meeting, this collaborative creative team made a film that is a classic coming-of-age story told through a rather unconventional lens.
Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) is a skater living in Long Island with her single mother (Orange is the New Black‘s Elizabeth Rodriguez). After a rather unfortunate skateboard accident, Camille’s mother forbids her to continue riding for fear of a more debilitating injury. Camille “promises,” but a quick peruse on Instagram informs her that the all-girl skate crew, Skate Kitchen, is looking for new members at a local park in the city. Camille grabs her board, and the quiet, awkward 18-year-old endears herself to the group. While together, the women navigate the sometimes hostile and dismissive world of male-dominated skate parks, filming video of each other practicing new skills and throwing shade to the sexist pigs around them. It’s only when Camille starts hanging out with some of the boys that tensions in the group begin to rise, forcing Camille to decide whose friendship means more in her life.
All of the women featured in Skate Kitchen are real skateboarders, and just like her work in The Wolfpack, Moselle has a wonderful ability of capturing her subjects in their element. The passion these women have for skateboarding is intoxicating, and feeling the natural rhythm and beat of skateboard wheels hitting and scrapping along pavement in this film is an exhilarating experience. Sound editing and design isn’t typically something you would notice in a film this intimate but it works wonders here, as does Moselle dynamic camera choreography. Everything flows with an athletic gracefulness, in glimpses of outstretched arms, and waves of hair in the wind.
Skate Kitchen isn’t a documentary, but it does have a very cinema verite feel to it. I was surprised to learn that not much in this movie was improvised, which is extraordinary given the random, naturalistic dialogue and the “slice of life” style of so many of the scenes. There is a loose plot to this film, but it’s all tied together through a string of dream-like sequences and intimate moments of growing up. Instead of setting her camera on these women and waiting for something to happen (which I have no doubt would), Moselle opted for a collaborative effort with the group, workshopping different scenes and rewriting the dialogue based on the women’s experiences and relationships with each other. The process works well for this narrative film structure and highlights the connections that clearly already exist between this group of friends.
What does make this film a more conventional female coming-of-age story is the presence of men as an obstacle to female friendship. In this regard, Skate Kitchen has some similarities to 2009’s Whip It, where a cool, artsy guy, wins the attention of Ellen Page’s badass roller-derby chick, Bliss Cavendar, at the expense of her friends and her responsibilities to her team. In the case of Skate Kitchen, Camille gets a little too cozy with a skateboarder and photographer played by Jaden Smith, and a former fling of one of the women in the group. The difference here is that their relationship does not take up a lot of the runtime and is not as much a primary focus of the film. As with Whip It, the boy relationship is used to show Camille that while guys will always be jerks (intentionally or not), her friends will always have her back. Does a boy component always have to play a part in a female coming-of-age film? Does it take the focus off of the girls by being there? Maybe. I would argue that whether we like it or not, sex and relationships are always a part of growing up and thus their presence in these kinds of movies is not surprising. It of course doesn’t mean its the only story that needs to be told, especially when there is so little for women in this genre to begin with. But I think Moselle does a good job of keeping romance on the periphery here, and keeping the focus where it belongs.
I had a lot of fun with Skate Kitchen and Moselle’s style of filmmaking. The diversity of the women on screen is refreshing and their frankness is something we don’t see enough of. Now if only I could skateboard…
Skate Kitchen opens today at the Ritz Bourse.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.