Skate Kitchen blurs reality and fiction with an oddly refreshing view of run-down New York

Jaden Smith and Rachelle Vinberg in Skate Kitchen

I don’t know exactly how to describe Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen.

Once upon a time, we would’ve called it a version of fictionalized cinema vérité or direct cinema. Now that this approach more or less also describes most of reality television, it doesn’t seem right (or particularly accurate) to assign those qualities to a film that is purely a work of fiction. Skate Kitchen is entirely scripted, but cast mainly with non-actors in roles very much based on themselves; it has an established plot but relies heavily on improvisation, giving it the texture of a documentary without the structure or implicit expectation of “truthfulness.” It’s something that’s been done before (most notably — and recently — by the Safdie brothers in Heaven Knows What) but remains infrequent enough to be difficult to describe. One thing’s for sure: I find what Moselle has been able to get from these non-actors to be extremely impressive.

“We did a lot of rehearsals, but I think the main thing is knowing where the narrative needs to go,” says Moselle. “The rehearsals were really more about them learning the beats, and then I would just let them go off page without having to give the same reading every time. They gave us options; they knew where the story needed to go and they kind of improv’d their way through it. There was a script that they actually, at some point, held in their hands, and sometimes others would chime in. I think it’s also about building this space together that feels really special and that makes us all feel comfortable. The key to working with non-actors is that they have to be open. If they have this openness, all you have to do is give them the circumstances and let them live as themselves within them.”

Eighteen-year-old Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) lives with her single mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez) in Long Island, far from the hustle-and-bustle of Manhattan. Skateboarding is her passion, but her overprotective mother has forbidden her from skateboarding — partially because of a bad spill she took, and partially because she sees it as somehow unbecoming of her daughter. Camille nevertheless accepts an invitation from a Manhattan all-girl skate gang to come and ride with them, and she soon falls in with the disparate crew, telling her mother that she’s spending her days at the library. As her relationship with her mother grows more tense, Camille begins to lean heavily on her friends, particularly Janay (Dede Lovelace), who has, shall we say, mixed feelings about Camille bumming around with her ex Devon (Jaden Smith).

Although their encounter came by chance (Moselle apparently discovered the crew on a train and recruited them for a short film project before embarking on the longer feature), Moselle herself does have some experience in the peripheries of the skate scene.

“Growing up, all my friends skateboarded,” says Moselle. “I’ve had friends date pro skateboards and I hung with a lot of skateboarders when I came to New York, so it was definitely familiar to me. Then again, I got really sick of it at a certain point in my life, to the point where if I saw another dude skateboarding, I was gonna move somewhere else. (laughs) When I saw the girls skateboarding, I really saw it as something fresh and new and inspiring.”

Crystal Moselle

Filmmaking and skateboarding go hand-in-hand, of course. Skate videos are an extremely important part of the subculture, and therefore a narrative feature about the sport starts playing in a world with a pre-established visual language. “Our second AD was a skateboarder who had done a bunch of skate videos,” says Moselle. “I wanted the film to have a lot of movement; I didn’t want the camera to ever stop unless it was to capture a really meaningful moment. There’s just so much movement in their lives, it just felt like there was this flow to it that I wanted to translate to the movie.”

For Moselle, a bigger challenge in making the film was ensuring that the movie wasn’t… too much like a movie. Though a quick descriptor brings to mind either Larry Clark’s sensationalistic Kids or gnarly-rad ’80s comedies, nothing could be further from the truth. Skate Kitchen sometimes blurs the lines between narrative and documentary not only in its style, but its content, which is hardly if ever driven by melodrama. “Oh my God, the first cut was 4 hours and 45 minutes long!” Moselle exclaims. “And there were so many scenes where it just felt like… a movie! I just cut ’em out. I’m allergic to that shit. I wanted it to feel as real as possible. It’s funny, because we actually had to cut out quite a few scenes of things that actually happened in real life because it was so crazy. They got into a fight with a woman with a hammer and… even though it happened in real life, when we fictionalized it, it felt so corny! (laughs)”

Moselle’s feature debut was the Manhattan-set doc The Wolfpack, and like that film, Skate Kitchen depicts a Manhattan that is leaving less and less place for the lower-middle-class, the disenfranchised and the barely-hanging-on. Though Skate Kitchen is hardly a film explicitly about class, it does exist in a Manhattan that seems run-down in a way it hasn’t since the ’90s — if ever.

“Well, first of all, anyone who says that New York is dead clearly doesn’t hang around teenagers because they really find their own perspective of New York,” says Moselle. “I really like hanging out with younger people who are passionate about something, and in New York, there’s a lot of opportunity to be creative. What I love about the girls is that their perspective is totally different than most people’s when they look at New York. To them, it comes down to architecture and the way a building is shaped — whether they can grind on it with their skateboards or whatever — and I thought it was really cool and beautiful to witness their interactions with New York. The skate parks are really beautiful! Young people are exploring and finding things with this perspective as they’re growing up, and that’s really interesting to me.” ■

Skate Kitchen opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 24. Watch the trailer here:

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