Monday, November 26, 2018

Movie Review: Skate Kitchen

Skate Kitchen *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Crystal Moselle.
Written by: Crystal Moselle and Jen Silverman and Aslihan Unaldi.
Starring: Rachelle Vinberg (Camille), Jaden Smith (Devon), Ardelia Lovelace (Janay), Nina Moran (Kurt), Elizabeth Rodriguez (Mother).
It’s always a shame when a movie imposes artificial conflict and storylines on characters who do not need them – where the movie would be stronger if it didn’t feel the need to tell any sort of story at all. Such is the case with Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen – about a group of female teenage skaters, who spend their summer days on their boards, hanging out, sometimes getting high, sometimes flirting and dancing (or more) with the male skaters – and sometimes in direct conflict with those same skaters, who, of course, feel the need to prove how manly they are by making fun of the girls – and trying to belittle their skills. You could spend a whole movie just watching these kids interact with each other, and it would be time well spent. Where the movie is weakest though is when it tries to goose things along a little bit in terms of story – a conflict with an overprotective mother for instance, or a budding romance that threatens the entire groups cohesiveness. This movie doesn’t need those things, and it’s weaker because they’re there.
The film was directed by Crystal Moselle, whose breakout film was the documentary The Wolfpack – about a family of teenage boys, who apparently hadn’t left their New York apartment in years – they were home schooled by their mother, suffered with an abusive father, and stayed sane mainly by watching and re-watching their favorite movies over and over again – and then making their own versions of them. As good as that film was – and I did quite like it – I also felt that somehow, Moselle wasn’t asking some very basic questions about the how and they why that would have taken the movie to perhaps darker territory – but also more honest territory.
Skate Kitchen isn’t a documentary, although it’s one of the ever increasing number of films that blurs the line between docs and fiction films, in that all the actors in the film are non-professionals, playing a character not unlike themselves – with the notable exception of Jaden Smith, who seems to have been cast in hopes of making the film more commercial (hence his name being above the title on the poster). Smith fits in fine with the rest of the cast – although the storyline involving him is the most clichéd in the film.
The main character though is Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), an 18-year-old Long Island girl, who sees a group of female skaters from the city on Instagram, and decides to go over and try to make friends – despite her mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez – another pro, now that I realize it) and her objections. Camille is almost painfully shy when she first heads into the city and meets the girls – led by Janay (Ardelia Lovelace) and Kurt (Nina Moran) – but her skills are enough to win them over, and gradually, she will become one of the gang – and come out of her shell. She even moves in with Janay and her father, to get away from her mother for a while. It is her budding friendship, and maybe more, with Devon (Smith) – Janay’s ex, who she is still hung up – that threatens the group dynamics.
As I mentioned, I found much of what happens with the two pros – Rodriguez and Smith – to be among the weakest aspects of the movie – because it felt more like someone trying to impose a structure on the film, than something that happened naturally. Are there really mothers who would get that mad at their 18-year-old for skateboarding (I least bought Katherine Waterson’s rage in Mid90s – cause her kid looked to be 11). Would the nothing relationship between Camille and Devon bring about such immediate, and devastating results as it does here?
It’s a shame these plot points are here, because when the movie is more relaxed, it’s quietly wonderful. The performers have an ease with each, and are compelling individually, as well as part of the larger group. The skating scenes are terrific – you can tell no one is faking it – and the film has an easy charm to it. I mentioned Mid90s above, and that is a more typical film of this sort – focused on teenage boys, of course. This one goes a slightly different way with its focus on the girls – and it’s not like many movies that simply allows female characters to be as big of jackasses as its male characters – but sees in them something unique. I think Moselle was smart to do this instead of a doc on this group – imposing some structure would be necessary. But here, she goes a little too far, and turns a would-be great movie into just a good one.

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