Girls just wanna have fun. Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) loves to skate, but after a nasty accident, her overbearing mother forbids her from ever again getting on a skateboard. Refusing to accept defeat, Camille sneaks away to Manhattan to meet up with the Skate Kitchen, an all-girl group of skateboarders who hang out around New York and upload videos to their popular Instagram account. Skate Kitchen is the first fiction film from director Crystal Moselle (after her acclaimed doc, The Wolfpack), but the Skate Kitchen is a real group of girls, and you can really check them out on their Instagram account.
Much like another recent release, The Rider, which began with a random meeting between Chloé Zhao and Brady Jandreau, Skate Kitchen began with a chance encounter between Moselle and some of the girls on the subway. And just like The Rider, which casts Brady as the star of a story adapted from his own life, Skate Kitchen is a beguiling work of cinematic alchemy, fashioning a narrative film out of a real group of girls doing what they love most.
Camille is shy and unsure of herself, and the opening of the film deals with her slow process of opening up to the other girls and becoming comfortable around them and in her own body. Moselle directs her non-professional actors extremely well, capturing their natural chemistry but also staging them in purposeful ways. In one shot, as the girls all walk down a street together, Camille noticeably drifts away a bit on the right side of the frame, keeping a small bit of distance between herself and the other girls, an instinct of emotional self-defense. One of the girls, Janay (Ardelia “Dede” Lovelace), throws her arm around Camille and pulls her close. From this moment on they’re true friends, and Camille can finally accept that she is part of the group. Moselle is adept at depicting the struggles of an introvert; the way she shows Camille struggling to answer the most basic of personal questions in one scene is as painful in its authenticity as it is beautiful in its empathy.
Moselle’s visual strengths are impressive. The film is loaded with dynamic camerawork, from smooth, dreamy tracking shots to wild, energetic handheld work full of sudden pans. The camera moves a lot, but Moselle also knows when to stand still, deploying a series of intimate closeups during some of the more tender emotional and dialogue scenes. More striking is the editing. During a pivotal character moment, Camille talks about how she feels alone even when surrounded by other people. As she speaks, Moselle cuts away to images of Camille skating down a lonely road, while the audio from the first shot continues on as voice-over narration. Moselle plays around with this sort of desynchronization throughout the film; conversations will sometimes jump around in time, with images arranged non-sequentially and audio from one shot playing over another. This has the effect of making it seem like the days bleed into one another, that the girls are having so much fun, are so present in their time, that time no longer functions or holds sway over them. This subtle stylistic device is deployed to full and impactful effect during the film’s party scene. Here, Camille experiments with drugs for the first time, and the effect is appropriately disorienting and disconnected, with personal identities and bodies themselves becoming fluid and unstable.
Now for the bad—or less good. I found the final third of the film to be comparatively weak. I nearly fell out of my seat when Jaden Smith suddenly wandered into the film, although his appearance is not itself a problem. He suits his role well. But there is a structural and dramatic problem with the film’s eventual reliance on predictable plotting, and the specific subplot dealing with Devon (Smith). Moselle introduces some formulaic conflict late in the game, presumably to chart a course towards some necessary conclusion for the film. It feels wholly unnecessary in retrospect, and largely half-baked in execution. Some of the conflict simply feels perfunctory; there are not nearly enough scenes with Camille’s mother, for example, for that character, and her changes in behaviour, to land emotionally.
The sudden conflict between Camille and the Skate Kitchen, however, is the bigger problem. Camille starts spending more time with Devon and his skate group, which is seen as an act of betrayal. The initial confrontation between Camille and the other girls is unconvincingly contrived, and the direction of the plot from this point is never less than obvious, in terms of both the fallout and eventual reconciliation. The only real surprise is how abruptly this plot thread resolves, without a single scene or line of dialogue. Forgiveness and reconciliation are important elements of the theme of friendship and sisterhood Moselle sets out to depict, so I can appreciate what she is doing on paper. But it’s a mistake to not work through this aspect of the story with at least a couple substantial scenes. As is, Moselle delivers a pat ending to a film that didn’t need so much plot in the first place. Skate Kitchen is at its strongest when it’s capturing the girls hanging out and doing what they do best. Basically, the film needed less Jaden Smith—through no real fault of his own—and more Skate Kitchen.
Otherwise, Skate Kitchen is a beautiful film, often poetic and expressive in a strong, uniquely cinematic way. It captures a subculture in its intimacy and its energy, its sadness and its joy, in all of its embarrassing spills and sick moves. The final image is an evocative exclamation point on the film’s youthful spirit, cutting straight into an upbeat, dreamy pop track from Kali Uchis playing over the credits, sending the film out with one final, massive burst of energy. It’s so infectious I left the theatre wanting to grab a skateboard and go hang out with the girls in New York, fully recognizing that this impulse would only end with me as Steve Buscemi in 30 Rock. But that’s the power of a good movie: to spend two hours in someone else’s shoes, or on someone else’s skateboard, as it were, and make the world a little smaller, a little better, twenty-four frames per second.