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Crystal Moselle, who attracted unexpected attention by introducing an insular group of Lower East Side youths in her 2015 Sundance doc The Wolfpack, invites viewers into another with Skate Kitchen, her fiction debut. Cruising through downtown New York City and beyond with a handful of girl skateboarders, she focuses on one quiet youth who seems to have found Eden, only to be cast out of it. The atmospheric outing will attract many admirers on the fest circuit, even if it doesn’t cause the minor sensation the previous film did.
Bridging the gap between doc and feature, Moselle has built the film around a real crew of skateboarders, using improv and research to develop characters that jibe with the girls’ own personas, then placing them in a wholly fictional story. Newcomer Rachelle Vinberg, who in fact was a co-founder of Skate Kitchen, here plays a shy newcomer to the gang: Camille, who unlike the others lives out on Long Island, multiple train lines away from the action.
The film opens on a frightening accident that underlines both Camille’s similarity to and difference from the boys who skate in her neighborhood: She’s just as risk-taking as they are, but a flipped board to the groin wounds her differently, and prompts more panic from adults. Her mother (who was already wishing her lovely child would leave the tomboy thing behind) forces her to swear she will never skate again.
After seeing a social media post about a “girls skate sesh” at a skate park in Manhattan’s Chinatown, Camille breaks her promise. She sneaks into the city, where she’s initially intimidated by the boys skating but soon finds her people. A clique of girls including the outgoing Janay (Dede Lovelace) and flamboyantly dressed lesbian Kurt (Nina Moran, bringing Cali stoner vibes the party) befriends her, and soon she’s spending all her time with them. Though Camille initially declines their offers of weed and beer, she earns full cred by being perhaps the boldest skater among them. After a bad scene with her mother, Camille even moves in with Janay, whose dad is nurturing but not judgmental about how the girls live.
The near-paradise is threatened when one of the girls is sidelined by an ankle injury and Camille, unwilling to curb her own time on the board, starts hanging out with the boys’ crew as well. She gets a job in a grocery store, where one of those guys, Jaden Smith’s Devon, works as a stockboy. The two start spending one-on-one time together, and something is already developing before Camille learns Devon has a history with Janay.
Less a coming-of-age film than a series of crucial episodes in that process, Skate Kitchen mixes dreaminess and disillusionment as it observes the choices Camille makes and the ensuing fallout: Boundary-testing — always admired on the board — is more problematic in friendships, and she seems headed for a fall of one sort or another.
Though the script telegraphs a couple of plot points too strongly, it more often surprises, hinting at trauma that never arrives. Though hardly inattentive to the gender-specific themes here, Moselle and her cast never come down hard on them. When, for instance, a little girl watches the older ones blaze past her in the street, the “I could do that” in her eyes is a grace note, not an occasion for the film to congratulate itself for its empowering role models.
Some viewers may be skeptical of the film’s well coordinated leads, a posse that sometimes looks like it’s headed to a photo shoot for a street-geared fashion mag. Most skaters we watch in the real world command our attention more through charisma and bravado than cheekbones. But these girls here were skating together before Moselle discovered them, and if they’ve been professionally styled, the looks suit them. Maybe they’ll do more on the big screen and maybe they won’t. Here’s hoping they skate together for a long time, either way.
Production companies: Bow and Arrow Entertainment, RT Features, Pulse Films
Cast: Rachelle Vinberg, Dede Lovelace, Jaden Smith, Nina Moran, Ajani Russell, Kabrina Adams
Director: Crystal Moselle
Screenwriters: Aslihan Unaldi, Crystal Moselle, Jennifer Silverman
Producers: Lizzie Nastro, Izabella Tzenkova, Crystal Moselle, Julia Nottingham, Rodrigo Teixeira, Michael Sherman, Matthew Perniciaro
Executive producers: Lourenco Sant’anna, Sophie Mas, Thomas Benski
Director of photography: Shabier Kirchner
Production designer: Fletcher Chancey
Costume designer: Camille Garmendia
Editor: Nico Leunen
Composer: Aska Matsumiya
Casting director: Jessica Kelly, Rebecca Dealy
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)
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