After wowing crowds at Sundance in 2015 with her portrait of the extraordinary Angulo siblings in the brilliant documentary The Wolfpack, director Crytal Moselle returns with an impressive debut fiction feature which follows the trials and tribulations of a New York all girl skateboarding group in the fantastically understated Skate Kitchen. Staring mostly non professional actors, the film offers an opportunity for the acclaimed documentarian to showcase her cinéma vérité credentials in a productions which is reminiscent of Larry Clark and Harmony Korine’s groundbreaking 1995 film Kids.
Rachelle Vinberg, co-founder of the real Skate Kitchen skateboarding collective, stars as a Camille, a shy 18-year-old living deep in the suburbs of Long Island with her mother (played by Elizabeth Rodriguez). After a dramatic skating accident in which she is “credit-carded” (a term used by female skateboarders to describe a dangerous and very painful groin injury), Camille reluctantly promises her worried mother to never skate again.
When she comes across an instagram post from a group of Downtown New York female skaters inviting like-minded girls to join them, Camille can’t resist the urge to join them and, unbeknown to her mother, soon becomes a permanent fixture in their daily skating session in and around the city. Seduced by their free-spirited outlook and rowdy sexual antics, Camille’s life is soon thrown into turmoil by a lifestyle which is a million miles away from her suburban humdrum life. Encouraged by new best friend Janay (Ardelia Lovelace), Camille decides to leave home after one too many arguments with her concerned mother and moves in temporarily with Janay her family. However, friendships are soon put to the test when Camille finds herself attracted to a young skater from a rival male group played by Jaden Smith.
Constructing a whole narrative around a real life group of girl skaters, Moselle does a fantastic job in avoiding the usual pitfalls of working with non professional actors. Letting the skating speak for itself, the film functions almost like a documentary with its free-flowing narrative and social realist sensibilities. Managing to get to the heart of a subculture rarely depicted on-screen, Moselle is able to watch her subjects interact with each other in a series of sequences which could have just easily been part of one of her documentaries.
Vinberg delivers a raw, vulnerable and nuanced performance as Camille, which is rather than impressive for a first acting role, while Jaden Smith puts in a well-measured and hugely compelling turn as Camille’s love interest. Elsewhere, the acting is less than convincing, which in the great scheme of things won’t really matter too much for a film which is determined to avoid artifice and superfluous devices at any cost.
While the film could perhaps be accused of looking a little like a cool fashion commercial aimed at the ever-growing New York skating scene, Moselle should be commended for her commitment to her own vision and influences without a single hint of compromise. And by avoiding the usual tropes and clichés usually associated with the depiction of subcultures on-screen, the director has managed to create something truly unique and engaging.