Skate Kitchen shows women of colour thriving in a male-dominated world – but the deviance from the realist intimacy of director Crystal Moselle’s original short about the group in favour of Hollywood drama fogs its message and intent.
How do you solve a problem like characterisation? The issue with Skate Kitchen is, fundamentally, that it’s written at all – relying on pre-established group dynamics to carry a forced storyline that works incessantly to counteract them. Camille (Rachelle Vinberg, an established member of the Kitchen)
In the high stakes world of Instagram-based skateboard rivalries, Moselle makes clear to the audience that popularity and group acquiescence is everything, no matter how unconventional and supportive those groups seem. Skate Kitchen follows Camille through her idolization of, initiation into, and casting out from the titular Kitchen, a New York crew she worships from the confines of her lonely Rhode Island existence through social media. Her hunger for acceptance becomes what can be described as nothing if not Very Hungry Caterpillar-esque - when acceptance from the Kitchen (with whom she lives, having finally abandoned back and forth cross-state trips for prime NY real estate) alone fails to satiate her need for validation, she begins thrill seeking with the all-male group intimidating her friends, and ultimately, it seems, alienating them.
In his review for the Guardian, Charles Bramesco describes Camille as “figuring herself out, […] the Skate Kitchen clique [offering] her an identity she gladly accepts.” In toeing the line between constructed drama (Camille’s fall from grace, and into the group of rival skaters antithesising the Kitchen) and the kitchen-skateboard realism of street harassment clapbacks and discussions of the Mandela effect, her characterisation – or lack thereof - seems the only one given real care and thought. The characters surrounding Camille become almost ornamental, establishing the scene as one thing or another, framing her as whatever the plot deems necessary – be it out of water, finally at home, or, in one strangely gratuitous scene presumably intended to show comfortable sexuality, but seeming instead rather fetishistic, virginal.
Kabrina Adams’ characterisation extends to her being a person that films tricks.
Jani Lucid’s is aloof.
Nina Moran is a goofy stoner with a therapy rat.
The cast list continues in similar fashion, replete with an abortive romantic subplot wherein Jaden Smith exists to drive a wedge between Camille and the skate family she adopts - the red haired fruit luring her out of paradise. When all these surrounding identities become minimalised, Camille’s – or rather, Camille’s want of a self to be, people to fit in with – is brought to the forefront.
In turn, there are moments – tiny, tie-dyed glimmers, if you will – of Skate Kitchen that feel almost as though the characters may, at any given moment, start conducting their impassioned discussions in fluent Swedish, diving headfirst into their decidedly Persona-esque character swap. When Kitchen veteran Janay (DeDe Lovelace) injures herself in a group trick, she becomes the bedbound centre of gravity Camille finds herself not only progressively less and less inclined to maintain an orbit around, but in almost theatrical fashion, usurping, desirous of a tangible self to be. That that self is characterised flatly, if at all, serves radically to the film’s detriment: Janay becomes a prop to be cuckolded when appropriate, sad, angry and sexy where necessary to expediate the plot. The diversity of Skate Kitchen is hugely exciting as an audience member, and shows on a superficial level so, so clearly what mainstream Hollywood should be trying to achieve with every film it churns out, but fails to actually give any credence or focus to the women of colour it surrounds itself with.
Limp characterisation, in turn, almost negates the sense of natural chemistry shining through the sometimes awkward performances. That the group are friends at all, natural chemistry borne from actual friendship aside, is at points difficult to believe: Camille seems forced this way and that, shouted down in tampon safety discussions, her purposeful infantilisation made clear not only subtextually, but in verbatim. For so many reasons, Skate Kitchen is a laudable, vibrant, and fundamentally vital work - but succumbing to limp, frankly unnecessary plotting where it could instead focus on the actual, sincere humanity of the people it focuses on, prevents it from ever transcending its weaknesses. The charm that won the group its fame appears in spurts, but is glossed over by the constrictions of the coming-of-age genre the film attempts to slot itself into - and indeed, at what cost?