2018 was a big one for skateboard movies with Jonah Hill's directorial debut 'Mid90s', which followed a 13-year-old boy who starts to hang out with an older group of skateboarders while living in 1990s Los Angeles; and the documentary 'Minding The Gap', which chronicled the friendships of three young men growing up in Rockford, Illinois, united by their love of skateboarding.
Both films received huge critical acclaim, rare in a genre where Stacy Peralta's 'Dogtown and Z-Boys' and Gus Van Sant's dour 'Paranoid Park' have been the few gems embedded in the rubble of 'Lords of Dogtown', 'Thrashin', 'Grind' and 'Gleaming the Cube'.
Anyway, enough about the dudes. What about the subculture of female skateboarders?
Roll up your sleeves and enter: 'Skate Kitchen'.
In 2016, writer/director Crystal Moselle ('The Wolfpack') was approached by fashion brand Miu Miu to direct a short for their Women's Tales series in which female directors were given free reign to make short films as long as they featured Miu Miu clothing. Moselle, who had been collaborating with some teenage skater girls she had met, decided to film them for her short 'That One Day'. The short premiered at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival.
Moselle used many of the same actors she filmed for 'That One Day' in her debut narrative feature, 'Skate Kitchen'.
Camille (Rachelle Vinberg, impressive in her first major film role) is a shy, bespectacled teenage skateboarder from Long Island. We meet her after she painfully "credit cards" herself with her board while attempting a trick. Blood trickles down her legs, kids at the skate park make nasty comments about periods, stitches are required. After her hospital visit, her overprotective single mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez, 'Logan') forbids her from skateboarding again.
Via Instagram, Camille soon connects with a largely female New York City-based skateboarding crew called Skate Kitchen (a real skate collective, so called because some troll posted "She belongs in the kitchen" on a YouTube video of a girl skater).The loud, charismatic and fiercely protective girl gang brings Camille out of her shell and provides her with a sense of community.
The multi-racial, pansexual group includes Janay (Ardelia Lovelace), who lives with her chill, lasagne-making father and eventually shelters Camille, and Kurt (Nina Moran), a lesbian stoner who won't take any crap from the guys and has all the best lines.
After getting a job at the local supermarket and falling out with her mother, the increasingly independent Camille soon becomes enamoured with a mysterious co-worker/skater dude, Devon (Jaden Smith, very comfortable among an amateur cast). Alas, Devon has some history with Janay. Dra-ma alert!
Moselle first spotted real-life skaters Rachelle Vinberg and Nina Moran on the G train in Brooklyn. She immersed herself in their lives for a year, sharing her house with them and their friends, taking notes of their conversations and creating a script. The end result is plenty of improvised dialogue and a cast of mostly non-actors who are essentially playing versions of themselves through fictional personae. 'Skate Kitchen' feels somewhat like a Larry Clark film (think 'Kids' and 'Wassup Rockers') but without the creepy leering and empty-headed self-destruction.
This is also a rare film where social media is portrayed in a positive light. The teenagers bond through their Instagram accounts and encourage each other to pull off ollies, pop shuvits and kick-flips for YouTube videos.
The film has a unique girl power vibe. Not only does the Skate Kitchen watch each other's backs, but the oafish teenage boys, all shaggy hair and wispy moustaches, mostly exist on the fringes of the picture in the way that female characters usually do in other sports films. 'Skate Kitchen' doesn't demonise male skaters, it just shifts the focus.
It is also a rare movie where social media is portrayed in a positive light. The teenagers bond through their Instagram accounts and encourage each other to pull off ollies, pop shuvits and kick-flips for YouTube videos.
An argument could be made that 'Skate Kitchen' should have been a documentary - the film's strength is in it's drowsy portrayal of teenage shenanigans. Watching Camille and her new chums do jumps on their boards and yak about everything from tampons ("Can't they kill you?" she wonders aloud) to the Mandela effect (an alternate-universe conspiracy theory that wonders where the Monopoly Man's monocle went) while reassuring each other about possibly odd-looking vaginas ("No, it's valid") is great. But Camille's tense relationship with her mother and her crush on Devon is where a stilted, play-it-by-numbers feeling seeps into the direction, and the plotting becomes slightly contrived and insubstantial.
The scripted storyline may stumble but the film, shot in a poetic cinéma verite style, looks lush. Accompanied by a cool indie soundtrack that includes Clairo, Khalid, and Princess Nokia (as well as Jaden Smith's original track... sigh... "Back On My Sh*T"), cinematographer Shabier Kirchner captures the grimy beauty and romance of a steamy urban summer in a city that teems with life, where interesting events seem to be happening around every street corner.
A life-affirming look at a little-seen subculture, at the real heart of 'Skate Kitchen' is a genuine love for the sport, community and summertime in New York.