For me, the money shot of “Skate Kitchen” is a little girl, clinging to her mom’s hand and spinning around in awe and adoration as a gang of load, assertive and a little unruly skateboarders swerve around them on a lower Manhattan sidewalk.
They’re young women and this child of three or four has a new goal in life — to be like them, confident, athletic and brash, to own the concrete all through what used to be Hell’s Kitchen.
Crystal Moselle has followed up her critically-acclaimed, unconventionally-raised-boys documentary “The Wolfpack” with a bracing, documentary-real coming-of-age drama about girls who shred in a boy’s world, a skateboarder who finds her tribe and hangs with these kids who can shred, grind and bail when they fail with the best of them.
They just happen to be female.
Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) lives with her divorced nurse mom (Elizabeth Rodriguez), done with high school and bored out of her skull on Long Island. Her sole adventure — treks to skateboarding parks and favorite hangs where she tries to drop in to the boys’ tricks without snaking their line.
She’s good enough to have a tiny taste of Instagram fame, but she’s an outsider, something underlined when she “credit-cards” on a fall. The injury (you’ll see) is painful, scary and bloody, and her mother gives her the “No more skating, PROMISE me” speech. Camille agrees. And then goes behind her back with elaborate schemes to sneak her board out of the house while she goes to “the library.”
What mom doesn’t know is that Camille has found other female skaters, their online photos and videos luring her to Manhattan like the Siren’s song. She’ll go to “the library,” the 42nd Street New York Public Library and environs, New York’s skateboarding Mecca.
And rough and tumble as they are, these girls — a floating group of five, seven or eight — welcome her in with a “What’s your name? You really shredded that!”
Kurt (Nina Moran) is the outspoken lesbian leader of the pack, who finds them room to skate in the crowded venues — “So many penises in the way!”
Janay (Ardelia “Dede” Lovelace) the friendliest one, with the best life situation — a nice house they can hang in, an indulgent, supportive dad who feeds them all on occasion and gives them a place to crash.
Camille has grown up without a lot of friends, so the girl talk is every bit as valuable to her as the skating camaraderie. They pass the joint and talk about boys, or not being into boys, debunk tampon myths and maybe the difference between heedless, reckless boy skaters and themselves.
“You can’t think. Us girls, we think too much.”
The gender rivalry in the hot spots to skate is borderline violent. Skateboarding is just like surfboarding, Moselle suggests — tribal, primal, turf-protecting. But there’s one boy, Devon (Jaden Smith), who seems to want to keep the peace. With his metallic-red hair and big camera, he stands out.
And he’s noticed Camille and sees a compelling video and photo subject in her mad skillz.
The problem? He has “history” with the girls. Trouble’s coming.
That’s the most conventional thing in Moselle’s narrative, a budding romance, a crush.
It’s a film that sounds improvised much of the time, with Moselle’s camera tracking the skaters down the streets, into construction zones where they’re not allowed, grinding and trying to match each other, trick for trick, scaring and insulting the non-skaters or worse, ex-skaters (adult, working in a straight job, off the board) they come across.
“Hey, can you do an ‘alley’?”
“No, bro, I’m a poser.”
Vinberg is a compelling screen presence and like the others,can skate well enough to manage a trick or three in a single take. Bespectacled Camille is pretty, has a lot of hair, but is just the sort of girl you could ignore in Vinberg’s performance. The other skaters, especially those played by Moran and Lovelace, are loud, out there, making themselves noticed, even when they crash or bail.
Smith has never been less affected on the screen, guarded, making you wonder about the bad blood he’s engendered and the rough crowd he skates with and who share his crowded, dumpy apartment.
Moselle’s second film to focus on a fringe-dwelling “pack” but first to be a narrative, fictional feature, has an intimacy that the novelty of a free-range family of raised-by-themselves boys did not. What the movies share is a non-judgmental point of view, no “don’t try this at home” moments, though the viewer can certainly infer that.
She makes optimistic films with one over-riding message. Don’t worry about kids. Even if they get “credit-carded” along the way, they’ll figure it out.
MPAA Rating: R for drug use and language throughout, strong sexual content, and some nudity, all involving teens
Cast: Rachelle Vinberg, Jaden Smith, Dede Lovelace, Nina Moran, Jules Lorenzo, Kabrina Adams, Ajani Russell
Credits:Directed by Crystal Moselle, script by Jen Silverman, Aslihan Unaldi. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:45