At first glance, Skate Kitchen seems an odd programming choice for a genre festival like Fantasia. Crystal Moselle’s second feature lacks any genre trappings at all, instead telling a cinéma-vérité story about the titular real-life all-girl skate crew. But aside from being a great damn movie, Skate Kitchen speaks to contemporary counter-culture in such a way that makes it and Fantasia a perfect fit.
Skate Kitchen, the movie, stars Skate Kitchen, the skate crew, in a fictionalised narrative about the induction of one of their number. Lonely New York teen Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) starts the film with a particularly painful skateboarding accident - one that both causes her solo mother to forbid her from skateboarding, and gives her all the more drive to continue. Seeking out the Skate Kitchen via Instagram, Camille finds easy acceptance in their girls-only skating lifestyle. But as carefree as their skating is, Camille finds trouble at home and eventually even with her newfound friends, as adolescent jealousies and pettiness inevitably emerge.
Moselle’s experience in documentary (her previous film being the excellent doc The Wolfpack) shines through in the sheer verisimilitude she has wrought from her cast. Playing themselves, the Skate Kitchen come to the movie as skaters first, but they deliver stunningly un-self-conscious performances - possibly due to spending their lives on camera "for the 'grams." From this non-skater's perspective, they're damn good at what they do, as the film's many skating sequences demonstrate, but they aren’t dicks about it - and that shows in their good-natured acting.
Skate Kitchen is less a skating video than a film about skaters, so skating is presented as an extension of personality and attitude. I have to assume that large portions of the dialogue were unscripted, so natural and unguarded are the cast’s non-actor performances. Each character in the film comes across clearly and delightfully; we just hang out with them, getting to know their personalities without much backstory, and we don't crave any more structure than that. Even the one recognisable “real” actor in the cast, Jaden Smith, slots into the cast without an ounce of visible ego, embracing the vérité style wholeheartedly.
This is also a beautiful film. Moselle’s camera glides between and around her performers, lending dialogue scenes the same free-flowing ease as the skating sequences. Much of the film plays out in loose montage, with picture and dialogue often disconnected from each other, giving the impression of countless lazy, hazy afternoons. An eclectic soundtrack, featuring hip-hop, trip-hop, R&B, and chillwave, helps add to the atmosphere - as does Shabier Kirchner’s cinematography, all soft focus and light leaks and magic-hour glow.
Based almost entirely around female characters, and coming from a female writer/director, Skate Kitchen is disarmingly true to the tribulations of urban and suburban teenage-girl life. Camille’s home life is troubled, but not impossibly so. The girls discuss sex, attraction, puberty, and more, but their jokes play like natural banter, rather than constructed gags. And of course, fumbling teenage attempts at sexuality are replicated with cringe-inducing honesty.
Importantly, though Skate Kitchen is a film about girls staking a place in a male-dominated subculture, it doesn't make any overt statements about it. To do so would be to impose Hollywood convention on a film more interested in quietly documenting its characters’ lives. It's certainly readable as a feminist movie, but only because of how nonchalant it is - the Skate Kitchen simply do their thing, do it well, live their lives around it. Their camaraderie is close, but not purely centred around gender. It just all feels true to the joys and struggles of youth.
In Skate Kitchen, skating is freedom - freedom from rules, from school, from parents, from responsibility. It's a way to rebel against authority; to bond with friends or shun enemies; to express one's self. It’s what brings this group of friends together, what first attracts Camille to Smith’s quiet dude-skater, and what creates conflict and eventually resolution between Camille and her mother. I’m no skater, but Moselle’s film let me be one vicariously, experiencing the lackadaisical thrills of cruising New York on a board through the wonderful cast of characters she and her cast have created.
Even if Skate Kitchen doesn’t seem like your bag (it isn’t really mine, on paper), it’s worth checking out. It’s unlikely you’ll see a more poetic depiction of friendship this year.