Saturday 16 June 2018

SKATE KITCHEN review - Sundance London 2018

From the director of The Wolfpack comes this semi-biographical story of a group of teenage female skateboarders in NYC, and the constant hassle they face when trying to find their place in the male dominated skate park.

The film follows Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a talented but shy skater who lives with her single mother in Long Island, but after making friends with the Skate Kitchen skateboard group via Instagram, travels into the big city to skate with these other young women. As Camille quickly becomes a part of the group, they skate from park to park, bonding over uniquely female perspectives and experiences of life as a skater, such as the embarrassing "credit carding" injury that Camille experiences at the start of the film, but that I won't dare to explain here. Needless to say, ouch.

Skate Kitchen is directed by Crystal Moselle, who previously gave us the fascinating documentary The Wolfpack, about the Angulo brothers who had spent the majority of their lives confined to their family's NYC apartment, making amateur recreations of their favourite movies, like The Dark Knight and Reservoir Dogs, with little more than duct tape and a basic knowledge of filmmaking. Moselle happened upon the Angulo's in NYC's subway system, and the genesis for this film is similarly happenstance. After encountering some of the young female skaters on the subway, she became acquainted with the whole Skate Kitchen group at the skate parks and used them in a sort of short film/fashion commercial for the Miu Miu brand that's available on youtube. Now separate from those corporate ties that wouldn't quite be in the spirit of Sundance, this quasi-documentary feature film takes the basic premise of the short and expands it by creating newly named characters that stick pretty close to their real-life counterparts but with the dramatic freedom for Moselle to play with.

Possibly the most obvious facsimile of her real self is Nina Moran's Kurt, who is the most vocal and has the bolshy attitude needed to stand up to the boys in the parks. This is a group without an elected leader, but they all know it's Kurt who's fighting back most effectively. However, she is not the focus of the film, as most of the action revolves around Rachelle Vinberg as Camille. Again, her character closely mirrors the actress playing her, but she is a much shyer, introverted person, preferring to silence the misogyny of the boys by showing how good of a skater she is. Camille does show some classic teenage rebellion, like sneaking out to go skating by lowering her board out of her bedroom window on a rope, and letting her mother think she's at the library studying by sending her old photos of books. It's this strained relationship with her mother that kickstarts the story, but as things progress and Camille moves into the city with Janay (Deedee Lovelace), there's a moment where it's a simple hangout film, and all the better for it, until the need for a dramatic arc introduces Jaden Smith as love interest Devon who sows seeds of division in the group.

The problem the film has is that you become so enamoured with this cast of unknowns, that when Jaden Smith turns up about a third of the way through the film it has quite a jarring effect that pulls you out of the real world aesthetic that the film has spent so much time establishing. That's not to say that Smith is bad in the film; on the contrary, he's the best he's ever been, but his presence and the narrative turns that take place around him steer the film away from the other members of the Kitchen, which is a shame, as there's plenty of interesting dynamics in the core group. Dramatic storylines aside, the strength of this film lies in the performances of its raw, untrained cast. Showing us a street level New York City that appears to be ruled by youth, there's a real Raising Victor Vargas or Larry Clark's KIDS feel to the film, although thankfully it's a much more joyous experience than the latter.

The film is strongest when the focal point is the female friendships of its young cast, who, although they all look ridiculously cool and would not look out of place at a fashion show (the cast were in attendance at the screening, having spent the morning in London's skate parks and now looking like complete movie stars), are never fetishised or objectified in the way women skaters may have been had the director not been a woman. Their skating is not about tricks or fails, but is instead about freedom and camaraderie to be found with other young women who don't want to conform to the expected 'feminine' pastimes.

There's many joyous transitional scenes where we join the Skate Kitchen as they weave their way through the New York traffic without a care in the world; but the most indelible moment for me was as they glide along the sidewalk and pass a young girl walking the opposite direction who can't not turn her head in awe of what she's seeing. It's easy to agree with that assessment.


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