I don't know if I can get my favorite quote from a recent movie past the copy desk. I'm going to try anyway.
It's delivered by Jaden (son of Will) Smith in Crystal Moselle's Skate Kitchen, which is screening Saturday night as part of the Kaleidoscope Film Festival. Smith plays Devon, an aspiring photographer and part of what is a thriving lower Manhattan skateboard scene. Devon is at his job as a stocker in a bodega when he discovers the new hire is Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), whom he has previously encountered in the company of the titular group, a posse of young female skateboarders.
"Where's the rest of your rowdy-ass girl crew?" Devon asks laconically, as he barely acknowledges Camille. "Don't you guys travel in a squad?"
Smith's reading of the line is perfect; it's not an actorly reading, but deadpan and low-key, exactly the sort of thing one might overhear one millennial say to another.
The whole movie is like that. Moselle seems to approach this meta-fictional film the same way she approached The Wolfpack, her award-winning documentary about seven shut-in Manhattan siblings whose understanding of the world was shaped (and distorted) by the movies they consumed and acted out. She's determined to let her subjects be themselves, even as they are playing fictional characters with trajectories at variance with their own.
Skate Kitchen is a real group made up of young ladies who skateboard in lower Manhattan. Vinberg was one of their founding members; other members play characters who are part of the rowdy-ass girl crew of the fictional Skate Kitchen in the film.
Smith and Elizabeth Rodriguez (Diaz in Orange Is the New Black) are the only pros I noticed in the cast, though a quick glance at the film's IMDB page confirms that most of the actors work regularly. It just feels like a verite documentary.
Similar to how she found Wolfpack subjects the Angulo brothers on the streets of the lower west side, Moselle met the women of Skate Kitchen on a train and enlisted them for a short film. (Since then, Skate Kitchen has blown up in a modest way, appearing in magazine photo shoots and a Nike campaign, though I'd never heard of it before the film.) While they're all so photogenic you might imagine they were being played by fashion models, they exude authentic athleticism and street cred.
The arcs of the characters are pretty gentle; Camille is a not completely socialized 18-year-old skater who lives with her mother (Rodriguez) on Long Island. After a scary injury (that could have been a lot worse), Camille's mother demands she give up skating. But Camille won't quit, and travels to Manhattan to hook up with the SK girls she has been following on "the 'Gram."
They bond, quickly and with little ceremony, and soon are more than holding their own in a testosterone-dominated scene. Much of the movie involves them bantering subjects like the different varieties of sex and the Mandela Effect. While the language is frank and teenagers will do what teenagers will do, this isn't some Larry Clark-style survey of the sordid lives of young people or a Gus Van Sant tone poem. Bad things happen, conflicts arise, but no one gets very hurt for very long.
What Moselle does examine in an illuminating but matter-of-fact way is how much male boorishness young women have to put up with just to coexist. Camille's brief sojourn in a crash pad for skaters has her pretending to sleep while her housemates loudly consume porn or advertise their experience. Devon -- who has a room of his own at the pad -- is a different sort of guy, but he ends up disappointing Camille too.
I imagine that all of the Skate Kitchen girls might have Hollywood careers if they want, but Dede Lovelace, who plays the warm (and upper middle-class) Janay, and Nina Moran, who exhibits a skewed Kristen Wiig-ish charm as the tomboy Kurt, are standouts. As is Jaden Smith, who has never before registered as anything more than a reminder of his daddy's clout. Here he's subtle and supportive, a reliable teammate who doesn't need the ball to be effective.
Moselle has made a delightful, life-affirming movie with an uncanny verisimilitude and a bunch of likable kids. Maybe more than some folks, I'm aware that movies are unreliable illusions and we shouldn't assume that we know anything because we've watched a few of them. But Skate Kitchen made me feel good about people very different from myself.
Which makes it a perfect feature for the Kaleidoscope festival, and one of my favorite films of 2018.
MovieStyle on 08/10/2018
Print Headline: Likable kids, a gentle plot keep Skate Kitchen rolling