At the end of Bruce Beresford’s 1981 coming-of-age film “Puberty Blues,” two teenage girls who had been relegated to surfer-groupie status grab their own boards and defiantly charge into the waves. More than 30 years later, young women are still fighting for their corner of extreme sports, and “Skate Kitchen” celebrates female skateboarders who demand their right to grind and pop and kickflip whether the boys like it or not.
The narrative debut of documentarian Crystal Moselle (“The Wolfpack”), “Skate Kitchen” celebrates the liberation and the sisterhood that comes with skateboarding, with a mostly refreshing take on how teen girls deal with parents, boys and each other.
Young phenom Rachelle Vinberg stars as Camille, a shy, bespectacled Long Islander who is nonetheless skilled and fearless. In the opening scene, we see her wipeout after attempting to jump over a set of stairs; the board gets her between the legs (another character refers to this as “being credit card-ed”), causing some minor bleeding. Even though a few stitches takes care of the problem, Camille’s mom (Elizabeth Rodriguez) wants her to give it up, lest she become unable to bear children.
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But it’s too late: Camille has already discovered a pack of skater girls in Manhattan whom she sneaks off to join at the park or in the streets. (Note to parents: Camille keeps photos of herself at the library in her phone to throw off her mother’s scent.) When she’s finally caught coming home late and lying, Camille runs off to live with her new friends. Her new life becomes complicated, however, when she falls for sk8er boi Devon (Jaden Smith), who happens to be the ex of her friend Janay (Dede Lovelace).
The fallout between Camille and her new friends over Devon feels like a bit of a misstep: female filmmakers and film critics have long bemoaned the fact (even before there was a Bechdel test) that too many movies about strong women’s friendships have been spoiled by girls fighting over a boy. The subplot feels like the film’s sole commercial concession, particularly since “Skate Kitchen” is the product of a female director and writers. (Moselle shares script credit with Jen Silverman and Aslihan Unaldi.)
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There is interesting friction between the male skaters and the female ones, and while Camille becomes a pariah to the latter, she begins to build a bridge between both communities. It would have been nice if the film’s emotional climax had been less rushed; much of it takes place off-screen after a single text message.
For the most part, however, this is a gorgeous exploration of a young woman coming into her own via her skills and her sisterhood. The script has a funny looseness to it, capturing girl-talk in a way few features manage to; when one of the skaters admits to being hesitant about an upcoming gynecological exam, outspoken lesbian Kurt (Nina Moran) takes a quick peek and declares her friend’s genitals “valid.”
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Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner gives the New York locations a welcoming glow, and when Camille skates, the film seems to leap from gritty reality to transcendent lyricism, accompanied by ASKA’s soaring score or a handful of well-chosen pop songs (including Junior Senior’s “Move Your Feet” and Khalid’s “Young Dumb & Broke”).
The cast is mostly made up of skaters from the real Skate Kitchen collective — check out Moran’s TED Talk on the subject — and you’d never know they weren’t experienced actresses; their rapport with each other and with the camera is utterly relaxed. Rodriguez (“Orange Is the New Black”) has great moments with Vinberg, both loving and adversarial. As for Smith, the film’s one marquee name, he seems a lot more comfortable than he did in “After Earth,” and his work here makes for an interesting entry in a very eclectic on- and off-screen career.
“Skate Kitchen” is a funny and stirring saga of female empowerment that will no doubt delight young women who skate while inspiring many more to pick up a board. It also heralds Moselle as a director who can easily switch stance on both sides of the fiction/non-fiction divide.