Directed by: Crystal Moselle Written by: Moselle, Jen Silverman and Aslıhan Ünaldı
Genre-wise Skate Kitchen is a film in the same vein as another recent release, The Rider. Both are the products of directors who immersed themselves in communities, recreated those communities on camera, and cast actual community members as stars. On top of that, both are stories of riding (horses/skateboards), and both feature characters who try to forbid the riding. In Skate Kitchen the rider is Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a high school senior(/recent graduate (?)) and passionate skateboarder, and the “forbidder” is her mother, who after Camille suffers what appears to be a relatively minor injury tells her she is forbidden to skate. Camille subsequently takes a train to Manhattan where she quickly befriends an all-girl group of skaters she discovered through Instagram.
The experience of watching The Rider and Skate Kitchen is similar. Both are celebrations of landscapes and feel particularly fit for viewing on the big screen. What differentiates the two films, however, is that Skate Kitchen is a piece with two acts. While the plot of the film’s first act has some qualities in common with The Rider, the film’s second act takes it into entirely different territory. Having glanced at other reviews before seeing Skate Kitchen, I’d noticed that some labelled it a feminist movie. Unless these critics were really taken in by the one scene in which the skaters discuss the concept of gas-lighting (a good reflection of how political vocabulary has taken a foundation in otherwise apolitical millennial and generation-z spaces) I imagine the film really garnered its feminist label from the fact that it is a Bechdel-test-passing, serious movie in which a group of girls form a community and engage in athletic activity.
With that in mind, I couldn’t help but begin to draw mental parallels between Skate Kitchen and The Sandlot. The latter is a popular kid’s movie in which a group of 11-year old boys bond over their pickup baseball league. The Sandlot is certainly no feminist-flick: its female cast is limited to a generic mom-figure, and a lifeguard who one of the boys tricks into kissing him. The Sandlot also tried to improve its gender-politics with a sequel (The Sandlot 2) that featured three girl players, but unfortunately, two of them were background characters, and the film as a whole felt so contrived that the one who wasn’t a background character was not exactly memorable either.
Nonetheless, the idea of a good-version of The Sandlot aimed at girls feels like an important idea. Despite the film’s flaws, The Sandlot manages to be a pleasant celebration of comradery, immaturity, urban legend and passion-for-a-sport. Skate Kitchen is all of those things (albeit for an older audience), and on top of that, it manages to be socially conscious and thematically serious.
But there’s one strong quality that the The Sandlot has, that Skate Kitchen lacks. Cleverly mirroring the experience of baseball fandom, The Sandlot has two heroes: an everyman narrator who many viewers can relate to (Scotty Smalls), and another character who Scotty emulates and who ultimately completes the film’s heroic objective (Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez). The Sandlot may celebrate comradery within a flawed boy-community, but a big reason it makes this work is that Benny is the exception to this community’s rules. While the other boys bully Scotty for his lack of athletic skills, Benny, the best player of them all, helps coach him. And while Benny never does anything explicitly feminist in the movie, he at very least doesn’t come across as someone who, like his teammate Ham Porter, would scream “you play like a girl!”
Skate Kitchen does not have a Benny-figure. Instead, it features Camille both as its vulnerable narrator and its moral decision maker. This is not in and of itself a problem: again, the Scotty-Benny dynamic in The Sandlot is a unique one, and furthermore, the girls of Skate Kitchen are generally speaking far nicer than the boys of The Sandlot. Nonetheless, as Camille comes into conflict with her crew members toward the end of Skate Kitchen, the lack of a Benny-figure (or some other solution) felt like a real shortcoming.
Camille is defined by having a lot of dualistic traits. She is poor, but she lives in suburbia. She is the well-behaved, soft-spoken member of her friend group yet her story is defined by her rebellious streak. Similarly, she comes across as reasonable and agreeable, yet she constantly feels inclined to flee the people in her life all-together. All in all she is sympathetic and vulnerable, but most importantly feels like the only member of her crew who has three-dimensional thoughts and emotions. In the film’s most heartbreaking moments, she feels like the one reasonable character in a sea of immaturity and un-nuanced anger. Yet somehow, because Skate Kitchen is a celebration of comradery, it is not her group-members or other characters, but Camille who is ultimately compelled to grow at the end of the film. Messaging-wise, this didn’t sit right with me..
Skate Kitchen has a lot going for it. It’s lively, colourful, realistic, dark and funny. Similar to The Florida Project it features a cast of largely amateur actors teamed up with a single star (Jaden Smith) in a memorable, but supporting role. I suppose my one issue with it is how it holds up as an inspirational piece (whether it aspired to be one, I can’t say). On the one hand, it envisions how variously marginalized youth can escape into their own solidaristic communities, but on the other hand it also shows the degree to which membership in such communities can require unpleasant conformity. Of course it’s good and right for filmmaker’s to depict imperfect realities: the problem is when they seem to want us to accept them.