Film Review: Skate Kitchen

A fictionalized account of real-life female skateboarders that could have worked as a documentary but misses the mark in this oddball genre hybrid.
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If only Skate Kitchen had been a straightforward documentary. Director Crystal Moselle is undoubtedly exploring a curious subculture: female skateboarders engaging in high-risk athletics. It’s an extreme sport that’s not the game of choice for most girls—for, indeed, anybody. I, for one, might be mildly interested to know where these girls are coming from and why they’re doing what they do. A documentary seems like the obvious choice, especially given Moselle’s success with The Wolfpack, a nonfiction film that also tackled Lower East Side outliers.

Regrettably, in Moselle’s fictionalized account the fundamental questions remain unanswered, thanks to a story that’s ho-hum and manipulative. Admittedly, a documentary has its manipulative elements, too, from editing to structuring to overarching viewpoint. But viewer expectations differ: If a real person offers tropes as axiomatic, it’s not as off-putting in a documentary as it is coming from the mouth of a made-up character in a work of fiction.

The Skate Kitchen crew is an ethnically diverse group of East Village distaff skateboarders, who post their hair-raising jumps and leaps on social media. That’s how Moselle first became aware of them. Through a series of improvisations with the skaters, she and co-writers Aslihan Unaldiand Jennifer Silverman fashioned a script using the girls as the basis for the “characters” they play. The story also combines fact and fiction.

Rachelle Vinberg, co-founder of Skate Kitchen, plays Camille, the shy newbie. She’s a Long Island Latina-American who lives with her single mom (Elizabeth Rodriguez, one of the two professional actors employed). When Camille seriously injures herself in a skateboarding accident, she promises her mother she’ll never skate again. Despite her guarantees, she can’t stay away from her sport of choice, traveling to Chinatown to join Skate Kitchen’s ranks. A natural risk-taker, it doesn’t take long for her to be embraced by the group, which includes tough lesbian Kurt (Nina Moran, the most compelling presence onscreen) and the benign Janay (Ardelia Lovelace), among others.

After Camille’s mom finds out she’s still skateboarding, she throws her out of the house, forcing Camille to move in with Janay and her loving dad. When the girls are not skateboarding, they’re just teenage girls, glued to their cellphones, getting high and engaging in earnest group-therapy sessions with one another where they spout clichés as profound truths.

Throughout, the girls encounter conflict with the skateboarding boys who want to maintain their turf. Camille begins to hang out with the boys—thus breaking an unwritten rule—and develops a friendship with Devon (Jaden Smith, a professional actor), whom she later learns was previously Janay’s boyfriend. Janay severs her relationship with Camille, who now faces rite-of-passage challenges. Mature decisions need to be made in her relationships with Janay, Devon and her mom.

Despite the setting’s exoticism, the story is old-hat and not especially compelling. But far more serious is its improvisational tone. Though it may in fact be a written script (as Moselle insists), it has the feeling of a long improvisation. Contrary to its intent, improvisation does not remotely sound like real people talking. It sounds like what it is: actors improvising, noticeable through clearly recognizable stylistic conventions like overlapping dialogue and sincere characters speaking in low-key, disjointed phrases punctuated by long pauses and/or abrupt, unaccounted-for laughter.

Equally problematic is the group’s racial makeup, which includes only two white girls. While this may in fact be true to Skate Kitchen’s real-life makeup, in this fictionalized account it feels self-conscious. As much as we might like to believe we are living in that ideal post-racial utopian world, we’re not, and we’re not yet color-blind, either. That awareness doesn’t need to be leaned on, just acknowledged. It would have been intriguing to know, for example, how the girls feel in relationship to each other as African-Americans and whites, respectively. In one scene, Camille is living with a group of black and Hispanic men. She is allowed to show discomfort as a woman, but her feelings as a white woman are disallowed. In 2018, it’s inauthentic and becomes the elephant in the room.

The casting is equally jarring, underscoring once again the difference between documentary and fiction. Life doesn’t have to be believable. Fiction does. None of these women is plausible as a skateboarder, though that’s exactly what they are. They look like upscale models playing skateboarders on a TV commercial or as extras in a movie about skateboarders. The most improbable casting, ironically enough, is the gentle-faced Vinberg, who, as noted, is a co-founder of the group.

In the end, Skate Kitchen is a frustrating film that’s supposed to elicit a heady sense of freedom, girl power and a rush of sisterhood. It doesn’t. Instead, one is left feeling vaguely hollow watching the skaters in the final scene as they zigzag their way through midtown Manhattan traffic, almost tempting cars to run them down.