'Betty': TV Review

Alison Rosa/HBO
The dream of the '90s is alive — and welcome.
5/1/2020

HBO's Gen Z skater comedy, based on the 2018 film 'Skate Kitchen,' is a subdued celebration of young female friendship.

On Betty, HBO's languid, sun-soaked cinema verité micro-comedy series, there's nothing more tranquil than its recurrent montages of Gen Z women gliding on their skateboards through the concrete hills and valleys of a Manhattan skate park. With funky synths bleating indie-pop in the background, this inclusive group of friends all crop tops and booty shorts and feral patterns land ollies or fall on their backsides. Mostly, they fly though the air like a breeze itself.

When the boys talk shit, they've got each other's backs. When one misplaces precious cargo, the rest launch a search party. Weed is their social lubricant and boards are their liberation. Betty, beautifully and unselfconsciously queer, resides somewhere on the hazy spectrum between matriarchy and endless summer.

Created by director Crystal Moselle (The Wolfpack) as an alternate-universe spinoff of her pleasant 2018 coming-of-age film Skate Kitchen, Betty is cheerier than its predecessor and far less tangled in the pathos of growing up. Each character from the pic returns, but their relationships to each other have been rewired. Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), the film's protagonist, is no longer a Long Island teen rebelling against her mom, but a 20-something skater far more comfortable with the guys than she is with the girls.

Instead of Camille falling in with an already-established group of female skaters she follows on Instagram, as she does in the movie, the girls all meet by chance in the pilot and bond throughout the six-episode season. "Betty" is pejorative slang for a girl who hangs out at skate parks, like a poseur-groupie. Moselle and company wisely choose to reclaim it.

The group's de facto leader is Kirt (Nina Moran), a white, bro-y and effervescent lesbian burnout who also serves as the hilarious sweet dope of the group. She just wants everyone to be together and to have fun… and also has no problem "wilding out" on disrespectful dudes who refuse to share the skate park. Moran is a natural comedienne, a female Spicoli who animates every scene with just a shift in mien or an incredulous, "Yo…" She radiates bravado. After Kirt forgets her bestie's birthday, she shows up at the girl's apartment window holding a balloon with "Tyler," of all names, printed on it. Who's Tyler? "Some nerd with one less balloon. Happy birthday, bitch."

Kirt's look is a feat of costuming (and based on real-life skater Moran herself): long, straight, wheat blonde hair; a backwards, bedazzled baseball cap; no makeup save for mascara; multiple nose rings/piercings; pastel gym shorts; a tie-dyed t-shirt; a single, dangly turtle earring. In other words, #queerstylegoals. Kirt is The Baby-Sitters Club's Kristy Thomas if she got older, but never grew up.  

She's flanked by her BFF Janay (Dede Lovelace), a progressive vlogger grappling with the sexual misconduct allegations against her ex-boyfriend, Honeybear (Kabrina "Moonbear" Adams), an artistic introvert exploring same-sex first love, and Indigo (Ajani Russell), a fashionable trustafarian/low-level weed dealer. Over the course of the season, they become closer with Camille (Vinberg), a bespectacled skater who realizes that impressing the guys at the park is not all that it's cracked up to be.

Their fashion ranges from bleached eyebrows to duct tape worn as a bralette. Each of the main cast belongs to a real-life female skater collective, whose members Moselle discovered by chance on the subway and subsequently based Skate Kitchen around. While their acting skills are still a little underbaked, they each bring authenticity to the screen.

Some of the rather desultory storylines meander a lost backpack, a modeling gig gone awry, a brief stint in jail but the plot isn't the point. Instead, it's the freedom these friends embody when they're on their boards, flying through city traffic together. It's the flirting, the vaping. It's the vision of female friendship, of young, queer, racially diverse women inhabiting their athleticism. It's about the joy, not the competition.

Stylistically, Betty looks and sounds like a Harmony Korine film without the signature tragedy. It feels like a spiritual sequel to the 1997 Riot Grrrl cult classic All Over Me, another story of female friendship, queer exploration and male-dominated pastimes in summery Manhattan. Betty could also be a distant cousin of HBO's High Maintenance, thanks to its naturalistic attention to New York subcultures. (Indeed, High Maintenance star Ben Sinclair cameos in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment that makes you hope the girls have hung with The Guy before.) The series thrives in its urban textures: It makes you sweat the humid summer air, smell the city's stink and taste the potential of an endless diner menu. The dream of the '90s is alive in Betty.

The stakes aren't too high. In the funniest episode, Kirt takes psychedelic mushrooms and adopts an albino rat she christens "Perstefanie," then enjoys the epiphanies of the day while cuddling her silent new friend. In the most moving scene, Camille and Kirt begin to teach a curious little girl how to use a skateboard until her Orthodox Jewish father threatens to call the cops on them. (I got chills when the same little girl finds a board waiting for her on her doorstep later.) Some viewers may complain Betty goes nowhere, or moves too muddily. I found its languor soothing, an emancipating celebration of femme self-acceptance.

Cast: Nina Moran, Rachelle Vinberg, Dede Lovelace, Kabrina "Moonbear" Adams, Ajani Russell
Created by: Crystal Moselle
Premieres: Friday, 11 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)