Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 09, 2018 10:54 am 
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In Skate Kitchen, Crystal Moselle makes the familiar transition from documentary to feature film, but she does not make it completely. There is an overlay of plot loosely binding together the new movie's picture of skateboard girls - teenagers wandering free in Lower Manhattan with their boards and their attitude. But the story doesn't dig deep enough to engage us, though the people and the milieu do, and every shot pops with color and movement.

Expectations can only be high. Moselle's 2015 film The Wolfpack was astonishing, both for the extraordinary family she'd found and for her unprecedented access to it, the more remarkable because it was secret and hidden. There were six brothers, so dark-haired and close in size and looks the word "pack" fit. Later donning dark suits and ties they became a rat pack, a la Reservoir Dogs. They were raised for years high up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (the new film doesn't move too far from there), kept virtual prisoners. The surprise was how much fun they seemed to have. They compensated for their confinement by gleeful imitation and invention - putting on plays with costumes and dialogue, recreating movies they watched - because they were allowed that window on the world and as a team they ran with it. Wolfpack moves toward the time when the brothers begin to gain access to the outside, and break free. But mostly the documentary, which won a prize, depicts how they lived in their confinement. It was a marvelous, astonishing documentary.

That was a tough act to follow and one must forgive Moselle for stumbling a bit this time. In Skate Kitchen she does an about-face - from high up and confined indoors, to running free on the streets around Cherry Street, parallel to FDR Drive and near Chinatown. This time she's found a wolfpack of girls instead of boys. They're not siblings, but a close-knit, mixed posse, loyal to each other and all crazy about skateboarding. The atmosphere suggests Martin Bell's 1984 Streetwise with its runaways on the streets of Seattle. One of the girls, Kurt (Nina Moran) who identifies as lesbian ("I like pussy - good pussy"), has a pouty face like Tiny in Bell's film. And if one of the girls has trouble at home, the others can find a place for her to sleep. Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies, Tomboy, Girlhood), the French filmmaker with such a gift for entering the world of adolescent girls coming of age, might come to mind. But there's an important difference: Sciamma has a keen and memorable sense of story, so much so that André Téchiné hired her on to collaborate on the screenplay for his powerful 2016 gay coming of age film, Being 17.

Skate Kitchen is vividly biological in its coming of age for girls. The protagonist, Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) has a fall and her board wounds her vagina somehow, making some boys think it's her period. She turns out also to need a lesson in using tampons. Camille joins the girls as an outsider. She lives on Long Island. She's trapped temporarily in the world of her conservative young Latina mother, who orders her to drop skateboarding after her accident. This becomes the excuse to stop obeying and come home late, sleep over elsewhere, in care of the girls. The "Skate Kitchen" band is Camille's new home. Sometimes there are boys, but a memorable early line from the butch, tough-talking Kurt is "There are too many penises in the way." Boys are seen as an obstacle to the girls' skateboarding and their bonding. The big crisis is over a boy.

The atmosphere is great in Skate Kitchen. Again Moselle has gained unprecedented, inexplicable access to a world. She is more obviously manipulating this world. The characters have invented names different from their real ones, and events are concocted. Still, the interactions between them, their vulgar, intense repartee, flow freely. That collective life is the heart of the film and why you'd want to watch it. Not for any story. In fact, fifty minutes go by and not a lot has happened.

Finally Camille falls in with a boy she meets working at a grocery story, or he takes a shine to her; typically, the writing isn't too clear on the point. He's called Devon. Jaden Smith, in this role, isn't any more impressive than previously, though, to be fair, he doesn't get much to do or say. As Camille, Rachelle Vinberg has a glum, calm quality. She makes a nice balance to the volatility to some of the other girls, but she's not every interesting, either. She doesn't make us feel her issues with her mother very intensely. But, to do her justice, she seems to have it easy. She lived for her early years with her father. Maybe she could go back to him. But after a time on her own lodged by the girls, her mother takes her back as if nothing has happened.

The film's only real crisis is between Kurt and Camille, because one of the gang leaders, Janay (Dede Lovelace). turns out to have had a thing for Devon that ended because he wanted only to be friends. Then, the same thing happens with Camille, which makes us wonder: is Devon gay? Neither this question nor Janay's passion over Devon is every explained.

One of the girls has a camera all the time, though that is dropped in favor of Devon. Devon and Camille go on little idylls together where he shoots pictures of her skating. Sometimes it's with a big DSLR, sometimes with an early-Seventies camera, a Canon FTb. The difference and what he is doing are never explained. In fact, for a skateboarding movie, this has little of the lore, history, or terminology. Tony Alva is reduced to the name of a pet white rat. The importance of photography of skating, which goes back to the date of that classic FTb, is alluded to with many quick shots of images on Camille's phone. But what about working on routines? What about styles of skating, movies, competitions, stars? Sports don't exist in a vacuum.

Moselle is too good a documentarian not to have known much more than she shows. That is an understandable choice. Nonetheless, she lets the world she's depicting overwhelm the lives. There is more emotion in a sub-episode of the Web-HBO series "High Maintenance," or a few minutes of Peter Sollett's Raising Victor Vargas. And if you want a skateboarding movie, start with Dogtown and Z Boys, and move on to Lords of Dogtown. Skate Kitchen is far from a disaster, but it's still a disappointment.

Skate Kitchen, 100 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2018, and played in at least seven other festivals. It opens in US cinemas 10 Aug. 2018 and the UK 28 Sept. Current Metascore (based on 9 critics) 79%.

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