Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen opens with teen skater Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) doing flip tricks by herself at the park. Two little boys eye her, kids at least seven years her junior, and yet they’ve already been primed to be intimidating and belittling to girls entering their spaces. Camille injures herself and promises her overzealous mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez) she’ll give up skating, but it’s not that simple. A lonely Long Island teen, Camille scrolls through the Instagram profiles of a group of female NYC skateboarders called Skate Kitchen, faving all their videos, escaping in her imagination to a place where she’s not the only young woman kick-flipping on the concrete. Eventually, she just maps out the long train ride to where the girls skate and tags along, observing them with interest, as though she’s studying the nature of girlhood friendships.
Moselle’s debut documentary, The Wolfpack, about some charismatic siblings who spent their free time painstakingly re-enacting their favorite films, teetered on the edge between vérité and performative realism. The film was a meta-commentary on movie lovers’ susceptibility to the fantasy of cinema spilling over into the real world. Though Moselle’s narrative feature debut, Skate Kitchen, tells a fictional story, the director again draws heavily from her subjects’ own personal histories, this time constructing a story about teen girls finding themselves and each other at the local skate park. In short, Moselle’s documentary reads like truth told as fiction, while Skate Kitchen reads like fiction told as truth. The films make a compelling pair, exploring male and female friendships and analyzing youth through the lenses of mass and social media.
Among the group of skaters Camille befriends is queer comic relief Kurt (Nina Moran), whose first lines are tall-tale boasts about getting fingered in a bush. Kurt is immediately likable, a cad who will push anything right to its tipping point but not so much that anyone would get hurt — emotionally or physically. But these girls are resilient anyway. As the gang sits around, smoking weed and shooting the shit, Kurt waxes poetic on the theory that humanity is currently living in a simulation. She goes hard to convince her friends she speaks the truth, and she shrugs it off when they poke fun at her stoner monologue. There are no hurt feelings or sulking, just good-natured ribbing, something all too rare with girls in the movies. We see that same emotional flexibility when the girls are biting it at the skate park, too; they fall, they get back up and life goes on.
Only, Camille, newly indoctrinated into the Skate Kitchen crew, hasn’t mastered the emotional bounce-back. Even such open, adventurous teens hold to unspoken rules and social codes, and Camille is behind in the game. Her desire for friendship is trumped only by her desire to be admired and seen by boys, who haven’t quite known what to do with a girl so competitive and driven. As with so many coming-of-age films, Skate Kitchen foregrounds a crush, in this case Devon (Jaden Smith), a soft-spoken aspiring photographer who has earned a bad reputation with the Skate Kitchen girls. Everyone tells Camille not to trust him but she’s helpless in his presence. He wants to take photos of her; he sees her.
My first instinct while watching Camille fawn over this likely “bad boy” was to roll my eyes. But the truth is: Nearly every girl experiences this brief lapse of judgment during the hormone hurricane. Is it a little cliché? Yup. Is life a little cliché? Oh, definitely. As infuriating as it is that Camille carves her way right into this hazard, Vinberg’s pensive performance rings true. Camille isn’t plotting to sell out her girls and date the boy; she’s bewildered and nose-sliding right into inevitable heartbreak, whether that be from the loss of the boy’s affections or the girls’ friendship.
Camille is generally timid but only perfectly comfortable revealing her angry id to one person, her mother, a perpetually exasperated woman whose cloying nature pushes Camille away. Their relationship is complicated not just by a generational difference but by cultural differences as well. Camille speaks only English, while her mother consistently speaks Spanish to her. That’s emblematic of this boundary-less, utopia-seeking teen whose identity (and sexuality) is fluid, while the older generation is rigid, dogmatic, entrenched in the past. All Camille wants to do is glide into the future but she’s slowly finding out that there’s a big benefit to remembering where you’re from.
Moselle’s film likely will be compared to Larry Clark’s Kids because of its intense realism, but Skate Kitchen is at the vanguard of a new generation of observe-and-report, coming-of-age movies that portray the real lives of young adults without devolving into an all-out exploitation. Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade and Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post belong there as well. In these films, the adult filmmakers seem to be actually listening to their actors, struggling to understand their perspective without projecting lazy judgments on them. In Skate Kitchen, the kids come as they are, and they’re wildly fascinating.