Adapted from a popular Instagram feed, Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen casts the real skateboarders who run the eponymous social media account as characters in a coming-of-age tale. It’s empathetic toward and clear-eyed about these young women, even if the drama it constructs around them tends toward the superficial. More effective than the familiar beats of the story is the film’s exploration, via the flexible metaphor of skateboarding, of what it’s like to grow up as a woman in an arena dominated by men.
Skate Kitchen centers on Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), an 18-year-old skateboarder from Long Island who, in the film’s opening sequence, seriously injures herself in a pointedly gendered way. Professing a fear that the next injury may prevent Camille from having children, her mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez) demands that she never skate again. Predictably, Camille immediately disobeys her mom, falling in with a group of female skaters who make New York City their playground. They offer the emotionally reserved girl an escape from a tumultuous family life, and eventually Camille moves in with Janay (Dede Lovelace) and her family. But Camille’s growing closeness to Janay’s ex, Devon (Jaden Smith), soon sets up another conflict for Camille to negotiate as she finds her place in the world outside her mother’s house.
Camille’s clashes with her mother and Janay drive the plot forward, but in some ways they’re the least interesting parts of the film. The maternal interdict against skating is little more than a contrivance for getting Camille out into the world, and the controversy over Camille’s relationship to Devon unfolds in predictable fashion, less realist than soap-operatic. The underdeveloped nature of the drama isn’t aided by the way Moselle assembles dialogue sequences, which often involves cutting away from a conversation and laying the dialogue over a montage of different moments in the scene—unmotivated cross-cuts that undermine the drama’s impact.
In its more documentary-like stretches, however, Skate Kitchen is engaging and even inspiring. One scene in particular offers a vision of female friendship that transcends lines of race and class, as the teenage characters gather in Janay’s bedroom and chat about their unique and shared experiences, offering up insights to each other in irreverent fashion. It’s a scene that, in its depiction of the generous camaraderie among a diverse group of young women, gives reason to hope for a younger generation that feels empowered to cross boundaries and to make their own world—and it works because the actors’ interactions seem authentic and unrehearsed.
That Skate Kitchen‘s young actors are real skateboarders is also exploited by Moselle in the film’s skating sequences, in which her camera is freed from the constraints of having to cut around stunt people. Here again, the production exudes a documentary-like veracity, as we see the characters actually engaged in the many triumphs and frustrations of skateboarding as they zip through the skateparks and streets of Manhattan. Low-angle, dynamic tracking shots immerse us in the vicarious rush of the young women landing tricks in the skate park, of skating solo away from home down an empty Long Island street, of moving in tandem with friends through the Big Apple’s busy avenues.
Such images suggest skateboarding not just as a metaphor for the ups and downs of growing up, but also for the broader struggle for freedom of movement and of access to traditionally masculine spaces. Street skateboarding has always been about willfully disregarding the received boundaries of the dominant culture; in Skate Kitchen, this spirit is revealed as implicitly feminist, at least when the film’s young women are riding their boards. Perhaps the most memorable shot of the film is a static one: of the young women of Skate Kitchen zooming past the camera as a little girl on the sidewalk holding her mother’s hand turns around and beams with wonder.