On the face of it, Skate Kitchen is typical stuff. An 18-year-old girl takes a short walk on the wild side, which finally isn’t all that wild. It’s like the old Chuck Berry song – after her quick fling, “Sweet little16” has to “change her trend and be sweet 16 and back in class again.” But along its way, its sense of place and character, and its richness of feeling make Skate Kitchen an elegant, touching movie.
Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) lives with her mother in a working-class suburb on Long Island. The mother mostly speaks Spanish, but Camille, who’s assimilating, mostly uses English. It’s summer and Camille spends her time at a skateboard park until she has an accident, cuts herself “down there” she tells friends later, and Mom extracts a promise that Camille will give up riding her skateboard – forever apparently. But of course, she does the opposite.
Camille lowers her skateboard by rope out her second-floor window, hops the train into Manhattan and sets up something of an alternative life for herself with a set of young women skateboarders her own age. These girls have a tougher city vibe than Camille and their company makes her feel just a touch independent from the control of her mother. Camille uses the ancient teenager ruse – that she’s at the library, and she texts old photos from the library to her mother to prove it.
Camille explodes into her new freedom. Her face is ecstatic and curious, and sometimes pensive or doubting. She’s quiet and you can see her take in new things and people. She travels down alleys, around big buildings, past city playgrounds and monuments, and she revels in the skateboard parks. Manhattan is a lot more congested than Long Island, but with her new friends Camille skates across the tricky intersections like a pro. Director and writer Crystal Moselle, with her cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, manages to make the city landscape at the same time constricting and for Camille liberating.
There aren’t any villains in Skate Kitchen. There’s danger; there’s loss and uncertainty, but what the film shows is Camille growing through the adventures that she seeks and that present themselves to her. She finds that wonderful group of young independent women instantly. They talk with each other about everything from skateboard technique to tampons to smoking pot to loneliness. They loll about like kittens. Most of them are working class, but except for one moment, there’s no clichéd picture of desperation. Not many parents inhabit the film – Camille has just her mother, and another father in the city walks in on the gang of girls lounging and yakking in the living room, only to ask what they want for supper. His daughter leads the others to cheer for his lasagna. So, there’s a nice cultural mix – the lasagna-making father is black; the girls are a mix of black, white, Hispanic and immigrant.
The sun shines throughout the movie; the girls are lively, open-faced, funny and smart. Of course, it’s a fantasy, but it’s a mostly gentle dream about a young woman finding herself. The title was invented by the girls in the movie, who have not acted before; it’s the name they’ve given to their group.
In some ways, Skate Kitchen feels like the TV series Girls. Those characters are older than these teenagers, but more important, Skate Kitchen doesn’t feel like it has anything to prove; it’s not out to show how daring it is or to see how many television taboos it can break. For the most part, it’s not hard to tell where the film is going, but it unfolds with beautifully natural rhythms, and it treats these young women with great respect.
In 2015, director Crystal Moselle made the documentary The Wolfpack, about six brothers whose parents had kept them locked away from the world for many years. Moselle has a fine, sympathetic eye for young people.