SKATE OR DIE
How ‘Skate Kitchen’ Vividly Captures Teen-Girl Sex and Skate Culture
Most filmmakers who try to depict female teenagedom may as well be from a different universe. For her film, Crystal Moselle let her subjects take the lead.
Hit up a skate park on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and, amid the skater bros and dudes smoking weed, you’ll find a tight-knit unit of talented teenage women. With unruly hair whipping their faces and socks pulled up under their Vans, the women belong to an inclusive group of young female skaters self-dubbed “Skate Kitchen.” The name’s a two-fingered salute to all the dickheads who have jeered at them to get off the quarter pipes and back in the kitchen.
These are the badass women cruising and kickflipping through Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen, a narrative film adapted from the girls’ real lives. At its center is Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a Long Island native and skillful skater who religiously follows the girl gang on Instagram. Breaking her mother’s rules, Camille begins trekking into the city to hang at the women’s stomping ground, skating and smoking and making online videos. She becomes fast friends with the crew, getting particularly close to Kurt (Nina Moran), a no-filter firecracker, and Janay (Ardelia Lovelace), whose comfortable house and kindly dad make for a great summer refuge.
Riding the Brooklyn G train in 2016, Moselle, who’d blown everyone’s mind the year before with her stranger-than-fiction debut documentary The Wolfpack, overheard a couple of teens recounting their past night’s escapades. Moselle couldn’t help but listen in. “Nina has this incredible voice. It just travels,” says Moselle, wearing giant crescent moon earrings and sipping on a green juice in Manhattan the week before the film’s release. “She can silence a room.”
But what really caught Moselle’s attention wasn’t what the girls (who turned out to be Vinberg and Moran) were saying, but what they were toting: skateboards. When they got off at the same stop, Moselle cornered the teens and introduced herself while trying to covertly record them on her phone. “They totally caught me,” Moselle recalls. “I actually still have the video.”
The chance encounter spurred a years-long collaboration, resulting in what would become Moselle’s first narrative feature. To pen the script, Moselle copied down stories from the women’s lives and shuffled them around on a big board. The Skate Kitchen consulted on every step, taking part in periodic improv workshops to ensure each scene felt organic and the dialogue true to their vernacular.
Similar to The Wolfpack—in which Moselle observes a gaggle of teenage brothers quarantined in a tenement apartment by protective parents—Skate Kitchen engages the sort of anti-scripted yet lightly stilted vibe of a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Dialogue is slangy and off the cuff. “That’s valid” is the movie’s most-recited phrase.
But reproducing skate parlance was only one part of Moselle’s mission. Devising realistic day-to-day conversations—ranging from tampons to crushes to hookups—was the bigger challenge. “There’s a real innocence to these girls and their scene. It’s not, like, drug-fueled. It’s very fun,” Moselle says. “I think Nina told me about how she’d made out with three girls in one night, and I was like, OK, that’s something we have to recreate.”
In one scene, lounging at Janay’s, Kurt interrogates Camille about her sexual preference. “Do you like dick or pussy?” she demands. “Boys… I like boys,” Camille offers. Unfazed, Kurt replies, “I like pussy. Good pussy.” Later on, Camille approaches a different friend about a guy she’s been seeing. “Do you like him?” she asks. “I like how he gives me head,” the friend replies, her mouth curled into a sly smile.
Story-wise, Skate Kitchen hits familiar coming-of-age beats—the strict mother, the best friend secrets, the love triangle—but its casual verisimilitude elevates it to a league of its own. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that its characters are dynamic, hardcore female athletes, the type of women you don’t tend to see on the big screen.
With the movie’s buzz, Moselle has become the newest inductee into a nebulous girl gang of her own, an expanding (but still criminally scant) array of modern female directors approaching women’s stories with a refreshing sense of authenticity: Andrea Arnold, Dee Rees, Elizabeth Wood. Arnold’s 2016 teen road epic American Honey is a particularly frequent point of comparison for Moselle’s film due to the parallel hip-hop soundtracks, zippy handheld camera, and brave trust in first-time actors.
The only young professional cast member in Skate Kitchen is Jaden Smith, who plays Camille’s love interest Devon. Smith came to mind for the part while Moselle and the crew were brainstorming actors; it was important that whoever played him actually knew how to skateboard. Serendipitously, Smith had DM’ed Vinberg on Instagram months earlier, complimenting her videos and inviting her to skate in Los Angeles should she ever be in town. Like Shia LaBeouf in American Honey, Smith slips into the ensemble seamlessly, drawing undue attention only via his hair, dyed bright red.
Moselle also shares Arnold’s observant eye and sense of adventure. New York City has a long cinematic history, but in Skate Kitchen the familiar environs feel fresh and invigorating. The secret, Moselle says, was letting the girls take the lead. “I love to see New York in a new perspective,” she says. “And to shut down the idea that New York is dead. I’m like, you don’t hang out with enough teenagers. These girls are finding a new version of New York every single day.”
Teen girls have long been seen as notoriously mysterious creatures, and notoriously difficult to capture onscreen. But that’s only because the majority who have endeavored to do so are of a different gender and generation. To them, the Skate Kitchen may as well be from another universe. It’s no wonder viewers are also likening Skate Kitchen to Kids, the canonized exemplar of raw teenage realism written by a young Harmony Korine: Both films got a boost from someone on the inside.
“There’s so many stories about what people think women talk about,” says Moselle. “The people that are putting the films out into the world—they’re not women, they’re men. And I think it’s time for them to realize that people do want to see these films. That they want these stories to live.”
She adds, “What’s cool is that I think a lot of these films are being financed right now, but as far as them actually getting out into the world, it’s a little bit more tough. So I think it’s just about pushing forward.”