While often conventional, “Skate Kitchen” actually offers something unprecedented in film history: It’s the first movie adapted from an Instagram feed. Director Crystal Moselle’s narrative debut following her Sundance-winning documentary “The Wolfpack” follows an embellished version of the titular all-girl skate crew, a group of chic New York women whose social media documents their raucous skating antics. The source material isn’t a gimmick so much as it establishes a credible foundation to root this sturdy coming-of-age premise in modern times, when alienated teens who escape the world through their phones — and there, they discover more people like them. At a moment of extreme paranoia about the future of communication, it’s a rare optimistic contrast.
That’s the arc for Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), an 18-year-old Long Island skateboarder who contends with her single mother’s controlling household by hitting the streets. In the first scene, she face-plants on the concrete and endures a bloody anatomical injury that her all-male skater companions can’t possibly comprehend. (One peer later describes it as getting “credit carded.”) Captured with fluid camerawork that glides alongside skateboarders and makes the injury hit hard, it’s a visceral illustration of the movie’s central idea — skating may be a boy’s club, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Once Camille discovers the Skate Kitchen on her feed, she tracks them down to the Lower East Side and quickly meshes with the rowdy gang, while keeping her mother at bay with a stream of lies about her new pursuit. It’s a colorful crew: The women play variations on themselves, and Moselle allows their distinctive personalities to stand out, from assertive lesbian Kurt (Nina Moran) to supportive Janay (Ardelia Lovelace). For a while, the movie simply lingers in the group’s dynamics, as they smoke pot, engage in giddy girl talk — guys suck, tampons are essential, etc. — and swap moves in between cruising around town stirring up trouble on the streets.
It’s not hard to recognize the imprint of Moselle, whose “The Wolfpack” also focused on a distinctive subset of New York life hidden from the rest of the world. “Skate Kitchen” eventually sags into formula, as Camille falls for a local skater (Jaden Smith, the movie’s sole professional actor) and complicates her allegiances to her clique, but the movie works best when it simply marvels at its feisty subjects and their talent.
Moselle previously documented the Skate Kitchen in her 13-minute 2016 short film “That One Day,” and she excels at permeating the lives of her hip subjects, who gamely rise to the challenge of riffing on their real personalities. Vinberg (also the short’s centerpiece) stands out as an especially involving character; her sullen, bespectacled face captures the struggles of a young woman both repressed and keen on finding a community willing to accept her. At odds with the strict expectations of her single-parent Hispanic household, Camille enters the Skate Kitchen as a rebel in training, gleaning much from watching her new peers do exactly as they please.
As teen-girl bonding stories go, “Skate Kitchen” stands out for the way it imports the all-too-familiar sight of young women talking through their lives. The streetwise alternative to “Girls,” the movie weaves together such a complete vision of its subjects that the rest of the world barely exists.
Of course, there’s a long-standing precedent to capturing this subculture — “Kids” did it, with more adventurous storytelling twists, more than 20 years ago — but Moselle’s subjects hold their own with the surprising ability to clarify their emotions through the cathartic process of hanging out. Camille’s complaints about “the loneliness you have even in a crowded room” may be one of the poetic observations ever made about the frustrations of inner-city life.
Once the movie settles into the beats of a gritty coming-of-age story, the tensions between the fictionalized narrative and its documentary foundation never fully come together. Camille quickly falls for Devin (Smith), a low-key skater and amateur photographer who entrances her with his abilities even as he draws her away from her original crew. Smith certainly offers a more believable performance than anything else in his career to date, but his character represents an obvious attempt to shoehorn a plot device when the movie works just fine humming alongside its protagonists.
The rest of the story stumbles from similar tropes: Relationship issues come and go, mother-daughter confrontations happen right on cue. But Moselle keeps coming back to satisfying footage of the skaters rolling through town, with a funky soundtrack reflecting the energy of their lives, and it’s those central moments that elevate the movie.
Moselle’s camera permeates the other aspects of their lives as well. “It’s not just skating!” Camille tells her concerned mother, and indeed, “Skate Kitchen” maps out an entire mini-universe of activities: watching videos, getting high, and engaging in DIY group therapy. Without breaking a lot of new ground, the result is one of the more positive depictions of millennial community-building in recent cinema. None of the group’s fancy flips or grinds top the degree to which “Skate Kitchen” turns its subjects into a fascinating microcosm of American youth.
“Shake Kitchen” premiered in the NEXT section at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.