Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen opens this week. It’s been highly acclaimed, both here at BMD and elsewhere. Speaking personally, I’ve been excited since I first saw the trailer. Moselle and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner create a beautiful, living, breathing New York City. The skateboarding is filmed cleanly and energetically. The blend of coming-of-age tale and hang-out picture its story is built on is a strong one. And then there’s its cast. Skate Kitchen’s lead actors are the real-life all-girls skate crew who give the picture its name, playing a fictionalized version of themselves. Specific to Skate Kitchen, their decision to star means that the picture’s skateboarding sequences feature real boarders doing real skating. When it’s captured well, there’s nothing in film quite like watching talented athletes do what they do best, from the Skate Kitchen crew riding to Scott Adkins, Marko Zaror and their peers pummeling the stuffing out of each other. In relation to the wider world of film, the teammates are non-professional actors. From the earliest days of the medium to today, non-professional actors and the filmmakers they work with have done some of the most interesting work out there. Below are a few recent examples that demand to be saluted.
The most temporally immediate point of comparison for Skate Kitchen is Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, which played the festival circuit in 2017 before a theatrical release this year. Both are fictional narratives drawn directly from the lives of their stars, non-actors with a great passion and the skills to pursue it. In real life, Brady Jandreau is a Native American horse trainer from South Dakota. He was an up-and-coming rodeo rider, but a severe head injury ended his career. Working together, Zhao and Jandreau created Brady Blackburn, a Native American horse trainer from South Dakota struggling with the aftermath of an injury that ended his rodeo career and may prevent him from ever riding again. Blackburn’s story is more fraught than Jandreau’s real life, but his real experiences inform the way the character responds to the internal mental and emotional conflicts he faces throughout the film. On a more practical level, Jandreau and Zhao make excellent use of his skill as a trainer. In one of The Rider’s most striking sequences, Blackburn calms an anxious horse, builds trust with him and gently but firmly acclimates him to working with a rider. Both the scene and the film as a whole were possible directly because of Jandreau’s real-life experiences, and the result is unforgettable.
Lived experience can be a vital tool for filmmaking, whether it serves as something for actors to draw upon while performing, or as a resource for writers and directors to make certain that they are doing right by the people whose stories they’re telling and the stories they want to tell. Consider Sean Baker’s iPhone-shot dramedy Tangerine. Stars Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez are transgender women playing transgender women. While Rodriguez had studied acting, neither she nor Taylor had made a film before. Both worked closely with director and co-writer Sean Baker throughout Tangerine’s production. Their experiences as trans women, and for Taylor, as a former sex worker, directly inform the final film – a long Christmas Eve filled with highs and lows as just-released from prison sex worker Sin-Dee Rella (Rodriguez) searches for the cisgender woman her boyfriend (James Ransone) cheated on her with while her best friend Alexandra (Taylor) hopes for a good turn-out at a musical performance she’ll be giving. Sin-Dee, Alexandra and their lives are not as directly tied to those of their actresses as The Rider’s Brady Blackburn is to Brady Jandreau, but Rodriguez and Taylor use their experiences to make the characters theirs. Between Rodriguez and Taylor animating Sin-Dee and Alexandra and Baker (a cisgender man) doing his job right by listening to and working with them throughout filmmaking, Tangerine feels genuine even at its most heightened.
There’s a multitude of reasons for filmmakers to work with non-professional actors. They may belong to communities the filmmaker themselves does not, as is the case in all three of the pictures discussed above. They may possess unique skillsets, such as Jandreau’s horse training, that provide a unique opportunity for astonishing cinema. Sometimes it’s good fortune – the right people meeting in the right place at the right time. Writer/director Andrea Arnold met Sasha Lane, the star of her 2016 epic youth road picture American Honey on a beach during spring break. Lane earned laurels for her work as Star, a young woman who joins up with a band of kids roving the US selling magazine subscriptions. She has since gone into acting full-time. Her work this year includes Hearts Beat Loud and The Miseducation of Cameron Post.
Whatever leads a non-professional actor to step in front of a camera, if they and the filmmakers they work with do the job with care, the results can be truly astonishing. From what I’ve read and what I’ve had a chance to see so far, Skate Kitchen seems to have been made with precisely that care. I cannot wait to see it.