The last time Crystal Moselle brought a film to Sundance, she won the 2015 festival’s jury prize for her stranger-than-fiction documentary study of seven cinema-obsessed, shut-in Manhattan siblings, “The Wolfpack.” Back in Park City with her first narrative feature, Moselle has uncovered yet another inimitable group of real-life New York youngsters, this one a posse of female skateboarders who haunt Lower East Side parks under the name Skate Kitchen. And though she’s given each skater a character to play and a fictional arc to play out, Moselle seems just as eager to let these young women be themselves as she was with “The Wolfpack’s” Angulo brothers. “Skate Kitchen” has plenty to say about the lengths to which young women must go to clear out a little breathing room in testosterone-heavy spaces, but it is first and foremost an irresistible hangout movie, offering a thoroughly millennial, vérité spin on ’80s skater classics like “Thrashin’.” Given the proper handling, it could land nicely.
Moselle met the film’s core cast after a chance encounter on a train, and previously enlisted them for a Miu Miu-commissioned short film – since then, the group has begun to make waves beyond skate culture, starring in various magazine spreads and a Nike campaign. “Skate Kitchen” will surely do wonders for the titular crew’s notoriety, but what’s most impressive is how well each of these first-time actors manage to retain their own personalities while stepping up to the challenge of carrying a whole film. Even adding a scion of Hollywood royalty to the cast does nothing to puncture the film’s low-key verisimilitude – supporting player Jaden Smith seems to be taking his cues from his nonpro costars, rather than the other way around.
Founding Skate Kitchen member Rachelle Vinberg takes on the starring role here as Camille, a Long Island 18-year-old living rather unhappily with her mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez), who forces her to give up skateboarding after a bad fall. Itching to break out, she happens upon some skilled skater girls on Instagram, and takes them up on an invitation to sneak out to Manhattan for a skate date. Shy, and impossibly naïve next to these tough-as-nails Downtown types, she nonetheless learns how to navigate the dynamics and the slang of her new gang, and becomes fast friends with the warm, welcoming Janay (Dede Lovelace) and the brash, pugilistic Kurt (scene-stealer Nina Moran).
It isn’t long before Camille’s mom discovers she isn’t actually spending her afternoons at the library and kicks her out. She winds up crashing with Janay and taking a job at a local bodega, where she meets a fellow skater and aspiring photographer who works in the stockroom, Devon (Smith). The Skate Kitchen girls have nebulously antagonistic relationships with the various male crews who share their territories, and Janay has a particularly knotty history with Devon, but Camille sees something in him, and begins taking surreptitious excursions with his crew on the side.
Nothing in the basic narrative that Moselle and co-writers Aslihan Unaldi and Jennifer Sullivan have cooked up here is particularly groundbreaking, but the film’s real attraction is the entirely believable interplay between these young women, whether they’re watching each other land heel-flips, making trouble around town, or bantering half-stoned about tampons. With its zits-and-all naturalism and documentary-style immersion into a down-and-dirty New York youth milieu, “Skate Kitchen’s” clearest aesthetic antecedent would seem to be 1995’s “Kids.” Yet this film’s perspective couldn’t have less in common with Larry Clark’s stealthily reactionary catalog of outrages – for all their copious weed-smoking, occasional casual sex and general aimlessness, “Skate Kitchen’s” kids seem perfectly all right.
Which is not to say that their multiracial sisterhood exists in any kind of utopia. Although the film is mercifully short on either rah-rah empowerment or teachable-moment injustices, Camille’s short stint living with a bunch of skater boys offers a wonderfully incisive snapshot of the thousand tiny microaggressions women are subject to in male-dominated subcultures, as Camille has to stare on blankly as the dudes around her trade sexual tall-tales, or pretend to be asleep while they watch porn on the other side of the room. (Moselle doesn’t present these guys as bad people, yet she certainly doesn’t see their behavior as harmless, either.)
But “Skate Kitchen” comes most fully to life when it’s in motion, and these young women are mesmerizing to watch as they carve up the concrete. After all the fights and reconciliations, the film saves its most quietly moving sequence for last, following our heroines as they fly heedlessly through Manhattan traffic at twilight – just a bunch of girls enjoying that one thing that skating so readily provides, and that American culture is so rarely willing to allow them: freedom.