Representation matters. It’s important for audiences who aren’t white males (like me) to see people like themselves on the screen — whether it’s “Moonlight” or “BlacKkKlansman” or “Crazy Rich Asians.” It’s also important for my demographic to see such stories, but for the opposite reason: So we need to see how people who aren’t us live, think and feel.
I have practically nothing in common with the New York teen girls who inhabit the energetic and heartfelt drama “Skate Kitchen.” But that doesn’t matter. What matters is how director Crystal Mozelle, much as she did in her acclaimed documentary “The Wolfpack,” draws us into their world, and lets them define themselves on their terms.
Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) is a solitary 18-year-old living on Long Island with her overworked, Spanish-speaking mom (Elizabeth Rodriguez). Camille is most happy when she’s riding her skateboard, trying new jumps and other tricks. After a bloody crash — she gets “credit carded,” meaning the edge of the board hits her hard in the groin — Camille must promise her mom she won’t skate any more. It’s a lie, of course, and soon she’s skating behind her mom’s back.
When she’s not skating herself, Camille is following Manhattan skateboarding girls on Instagram. One of them, a loudmouthed butch girl named Kurt (Nina Moran), posts a meet-up, Camille takes the train into the city and finds them. She makes fast friends with Kurt, camera-wielding Ruby (Kabrina Adams), street artist Indigo (Ajani Russell), and the rest. Camille soon is best friends with Janay (Dede Lovelace), and even sleeps over when she gets tired of dealing with her mom’s nagging and abuse.
Much of “Skate Kitchen” consists of watching Camille and her new friends hanging out. Sometimes they’re skating, and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner and editor Nico Leunen capture the freedom of the girls’ movements and the exhilaration when they go fast, jump far or wipe out. Sometimes, though, they’re talking about this or that, and we get insights into the secret world of teen girls — and this fierce ensemble of newcomers, led by Vinberg, makes it feel as real and as raw as a documentary.
About the only time “Skate Kitchen” falters is when Mozelle, who wrote the screenplay with Jen Silverman and Aslihan Unaldi, is forced by convention to provide some kind of dramatic tension. She finds it in a simple love triangle, when Camille starts hanging out with Devon (Jaden Smith), a budding photographer who used to date Janay, who’s still not over it.
Smith, son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, is the only familiar face in the cast, and he’s more mannered and Hollywood-y compared to the newcomers around him. That, along with the pedestrian story choice and simplistic message that accompanies it (what’s the girl version of “bros before ho’s”? “Sisters before misters”?), are minor stumbles. “Skate Kitchen” is at its best when its fascinating young women aren’t necessarily going anywhere, but are enjoying the moment when the wheels roll on the pavement and the air hits their faces.
Opened August 10 in select cities; opens Friday, August 31, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated R for drug use and language throughout, strong sexual content, and some nudity all involving teens. Running time: 102 minutes.