Director Crystal Moselle’s debut feature was a documentary, the acclaimed depiction of isolated, movie-obsessed brothers called The Wolfpack. It is fitting, then, that Moselle’s first full-length fiction offering is reliant on the foundational skills of observation and spinning a compelling narrative out of the distinctive individuals she meets when traversing the big world with a keen eye. Skate Kitchen takes its name from a crew of young women skateboarders in New York City who Moselle first encountered by chance, recruiting them for the short film That One Day before fleshing out the material to cover the requite ninety-plus minutes.
The film’s protagonist is Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a reticent eighteen-year-old whose burrowing into skateboarding social media leads her to discover a group of like-minded skateboard sorceresses who careen around the cement oases of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Desperate to break free of her humdrum life — and her disapproving mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez) — Camille strikes out to find her posse. At first, she’s little more than a tenderfooted bystander, landing her own sick moves in the skatepark, but mostly deferring when it comes time for other acts of minor delinquency. The heart of Skate Kitchen is the racing parallel tracks of Camille’s maturation and self-assurance. There are individual story threads to follow, but the film is less about any one tremulous relationship than the general process of growing up and finding one’s place and the people who will make that place consistently better and more welcoming.
Moselle has a shrewd visual sense that properly exploits the kinetics of her kickflipping charges. Even better, she commits to the verbal dynamics with an even more forthright spirit. The young women onscreen discuss the basic emotional and physical logistics of their lives with a frankness that’s rare and thrilling. Moselle is credited alongside Jen Silverman and Aslihan Unaldi on the screenplay, but much of the material is unmistakably drawn from genuine interactions between her actresses. The more Skate Kitchen strays from those unguarded moments — the obligatory plot line involving a crush-worthy boy (Jaden Smith) who divides the group is done well enough, but is also predictable and familiar — the less engaging it is. Even when it wavers, though, Skate Kitchen remains engaging and insightful. Moselle’s film’s strongest attribute is its blazing authenticity. It would take more than some transparent plot machinations to shear that truthfulness away.