Sundance Film Festival ‘18: London runs May 30 - June 2, 2018 at Picturehouse Central.
For a film that’s so much about love of skateboarding, Skate Kitchen opens with the kind of blood-pouring skate-related injury that sets the teeth on edge. Thankfully, this visceral injury is the only one of its kind in the film, opening with one of the worst possible iterations of what can happen to a female skateboarder before allowing us to see the enthusiasm, love, and enjoyment that its characters get from the sport. "You’ve been credit-carded!" someone cringes about the incident after the fact, revealing that the dangers are both commonplace and understood by the skaters in the film.
Crystal Moselle’s first feature is focused on a hip and dedicated New York City skate subculture; one that has traditionally been the refuge of cool teenage boys. Rachelle Vinberg is Camille, a reserved but passionate skateboarder whose mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez) is loving but deeply overprotective—and evidently hopeful her daughter will revert to a more feminine identity. But Camille has been following a cool group of girls from Manhattan who run an Instagram page called Skate Kitchen, where they film each other’s tricks, smoke weed, and flit all over the city. Before long, she takes it upon herself to befriend them, and they welcome her into the crew. From there, you have a fairly standard but well-executed series of events: incidental romantic fumblings, small rivalries, weed smoking, learning how to use a tampon correctly, and all the while gaining a growing sense of self from the shared friendship of the girl gang.
Although the film is not particularly resonant outside of its own myopic storytelling, it does beautifully observe this subculture with both raw and lyrical detail. From candy colored backdrops to the style minutiae of the different girls, Moselle clearly has an eye for the millennial appeal of their casual aesthetic. In fact, the documentarian first encountered the group on a train—suggesting that the physical dimensions of these girls were one of the initial appeals to the filmmaker when it came to making her first feature. Kurt (Nina Moran), the laconic bigmouth of the group, wears big Hawaiian shirts and a backwards baseball cap, while Janay (Dede Lovelace) favors tiny crop tops and her pals dye their eyebrows and pierce their noses. The overall effect is both aesthetically pleasing and somewhat reminiscent of a VICE advertisement, but Moselle does have real sense of feeling for her girls that goes beyond superficiality.
From internecine squabbles between boy and girl squads over skatepark territory and minor romances, Moselle notes the underlying sexism that still dogs the scene. When Camille begins to hang out with Devon (Jaden Smith) and his pals, she’s asked if she can keep up, privy to detailed sexual conversations, and thrown into the irritating reality of macho tribalism that the boys are a part of. Nothing terrible happens, but Moselle still subtly underlines the issue. Her debut is not reinventing the wheel, but it has a satisfying fidelity to the lives of these skater girls who find nirvana on their boards. The result is hard not to like.