Skate Kitchen is the skating film that has eluded filmmakers.
The recently deceased Warren Miller was one of cinema’s most iconic niche filmmakers. His “ski porn” films were replete with full-action sports sequences that demonstrated immense cinematographic virtuosity, the sort of camera work that begged the question, “How did he do that?” Skate Kitchen, the debut fictional film of director Crystal Moselle, is the rare narrative work with sports action shots to rival Miller. That the film can also boast an engrossing plot with well-realized characters and a definite sense of atmosphere makes it one of the more entertaining works of cinema of 2018 so far.
Skate Kitchen traces the tumultuous summer of Long Island teenager Camille (Rachelle Vinberg). Camille is banned from skateboarding by a mother who clearly does not understand her, but sneaks out of the house daily to meet up with a band of riot girls in midtown Manhattan who alternate skateboarding badassery with weed smoking and general low-level mayhem. Before long, Camille has abandoned her mother home’s to couch-surf with various skate denizens while working at a small grocery on the side, continuing to stomp at the skate park between shifts.
There are plenty of coming-of-age tropes – in a good of way – scattered throughout the film. Camille falls out with her mother, then her friends and then her boyfriend, all while learning what it means to be an adult. The street skating and the fuck-you-and-everyone-you-know attitude that comes with it makes for a novel and energizing backdrop to the more run-of-the-mill teenager-reaching-adulthood storyline. Narratively, Skate Kitchen simultaneously feels comfortable and well-worn but also edgy and new, which is certainly an accomplishment in its own right.
But what really makes this film stand out from the glut of coming-of-age tales to hit cinemas in 2018 is the cinematography. Almost in the way a musical will interrupt the narrative for a song-and-dance number or a Bollywood gangster film will stop in the middle of a gunfight for the heroes to dance, Skate Kitchen intersperses its narrative every few minutes with a joyous, and usually raucous, skating scene. Most of these are slow-motion, with a post-Boogie Nights musical score blasting an apt beat, and each one is stunning. They show skaters darting in and out of traffic – both street and sidewalk – and/or three-flipping their boards while hopping benches, railings, stairs or random street detritus. They sizzle with pure, enthralling bliss and make skateboarding look so fun, but also painful, as they capture many spills and most of the cast spends most of the film with bruises and scabs littering their limbs. Another good touch in these scenes is that the skaters in them are often also video-recording, so that they can post their friends’ runs on YouTube or Instagram later. Only Miller has ever made a sport feel so authentic and alive on the screen. Even in the non-action sequences, the cinematography remains stunning, full of the bursting colors of Harmony Korine and Nicolas Winding Refn, but also capturing New York in a way only Baumbach has recently.
Skate Kitchen is the skating film that has eluded filmmakers. Some attempts, like Lords of Dogtown, were worthwhile, but none have captured the euphoria and the anarchy of the sport like this. Skate Kitchen also serves as an excellent chronicle of teenage-dom in the postmodern information age, combining the posturing of The Bling Ring with the fish-out-of-water authenticity of Mistress America. Camille is cool but also not at all cool, a vegan but also maybe a prude. All of the other characters similarly feel like real people, which is almost never true of the teenagers in teenage films because the adults who make such products have no idea what it means to be a teenager in the current moment, but with Camille barely putting her phone down, it feels like Moselle has nailed it. Plus, there is a whole undercurrent of girl power and empowering freak-flag wavers that is needed in these regressive times.
Skate Kitchen is one of the best and most entertaining films of the year, with unrivaled cinematography and an interesting approach to the hackneyed coming-of-age story. It makes New York in the summer feel like a character and vivifies an underworld and subculture that, though very vibrant in real life, has eluded cinematic attempts to document it for decades. And even Miller, from the grave, has his mouth agape at the skating scenes.