Crystal Moselle’s previous film, the documentary The Wolfpack, chronicled the lives of a group of cinephile brothers who were confined to their Manhattan apartment for 14 years. Skate Kitchen, Moselle’s narrative feature debut, brings another slice of New York’s bustling culture to the big screen: the eponymous all-girl skate group. Moselle met several members of Skate Kitchen by chance on the subway in 2015, and the film marks their second collaboration after a Venice-bound short film. The film is like a narrative-documentary hybrid as she enlists the group to play fictionalised versions of themselves; a modern cinéma vérité. It’s evident how much she admires the skaters, as Skate Kitchen blossoms into a feisty coming-of-age tale about the enduring power of female friendship in the search for identity.
Founding member Rachelle Vinberg takes the lead as 18-year-old Camille, a reserved but talented skater from Long Island. Defying her mother’s wishes to quit skateboarding after a nasty accident, too painful for anyone with a vagina to divulge, she joins Skate Kitchen after stumbling on an invitation to a meetup on Instagram. Though she feels impossibly small next to these loud-mouthed gals, she quickly becomes fast friends with the group and frequently sneaks out of the house to roam the skate parks of Manhattan.
With the group comprising of almost the entire core cast, the vast majority of the faces we see on screen are first-time actors (the glaring exception is Jaden Smith, who thankfully fits right in). Rachelle Vinberg is such a warm presence that she invites empathy. Like the breakout performances from Sasha Lane in American Honey and Bria Vinaite in The Florida Project, Vinberg is such a gifted actress, with a performance so naturalistic and grounded that it’s a shame it took her so long to get here. The energetic ensemble cast that surrounds her is also outstanding—they radiate chemistry so lively and infectious that it could only come from a tight-knit group of friends who have known each other for years. It must’ve been destiny pulling the strings to make Moselle and Skate Kitchen meet that fateful day on the train.
The stakes are low and the story explores nothing new, but it’s a riveting journey nonetheless. Moselle films the group with such care and adulation, and as a result, the film brims with vibrancy and colour amongst the New York grey. When the girls are skating, the camera takes up position as if it is filming the group’s own videos for their Instagram. It glides along the tarmac in tandem with the skateboards as they coast and grind their way through the East Village. These moments exude the freedom that comes with the infinite possibilities of skateboarding. For these young skaters, the world is their playground.
While uniquely specific, the film retains elements of universality that perfectly capture the monumental challenge of finding one’s identity, and how all-consuming that can be when you’re in the throes of adolescence. That oh so elusive journey to Find Yourself is also made insurmountably more daunting when you’re a young woman trying to navigate through life in a man’s world. It details, with no fanfare or heightened drama, the pushback women receive every day when trying to make their own way and succeed in male-dominated spaces. “Can you do an Ollie?” a guy patronisingly asks one of the skaters. “No, I’m just a poser,” she quickly fires back. The film reflects the group’s dynamic: tough on the outside, enforcing a hardened demeanour needed to ward off skeptics. Eventually, unraveling to reveal a loving portrait of youthful camaraderie, full of solidarity and support, and devoid of the backstabbing behaviour that may have resulted if the film was put in the wrong hands.
Possibly deriving from its non-professional cast, the film is thrillingly refreshing in how it allows girls to be girls. In the private intimacy of bedrooms, the girls talk candidly about things only girls would talk about: tampons and sexuality and the like. It’s not just in the dialogue, but in the little details as well, like a blink-and-you-miss-it shot of a period stain on the bed. The film is so resonant because of its muted celebration of femininity, even in a seemingly masculine sport like skateboarding—it’s what makes the film a small, beautiful miracle. Skate Kitchen is as joyous and freeing as skating along the New York City skyline, feeling the wind blow as your arms are stretched out wide.
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