As an Army brat growing up on the outskirts of Guantanamo Bay, Mimi Knoop would obsessively spend her afternoons doing skate tricks in the concrete jungles around the base and watching lo-fi videos of professional teams like the Bones Brigade. And yet, for all of her passion, Knoop almost never entertained the idea that she might actually be able to become a part of it. She was a 23-year-old bartender in the Virgin Islands before she laid eyes on another female skateboarder for the first time in her life, but the mere sight of a girl riding a half-pipe on the bar TV was enough to change the trajectory of her entire life. She moved to California, won five X Games medals, and was chosen to coach USA’s first Women’s Olympic Skateboarding Team in 2019, an honor that reflected her tireless advocacy to get everyone a seat at the table of a community and burgeoning professional sport that had always been crowded by men.
Jessica Edwards’ kaleidoscopic “Skate Dreams” isn’t strictly about Knoop’s role in building her sub-culture, but every one of the fraying threads that form this wild and woolly documentary unspools from the same idea: Even trailblazers and badasses need to be able to see themselves in the world before they can change it. “If you visualize it for yourself,” says another of Edwards’ nearly two dozen subjects, “your brain makes it seem like you can do it.” She’s talking about overcoming the fear of dropping a new trick on the world stage, but “Skate Dreams” — which is genuinely inspiring despite its messiness, and rad as hell from nose to tail — leaves no doubt that she’s also talking about how these women got there.
Take Nora Vasconcellos, for example. Born in 1992 and raised at a time when the Kardashians were the aspirational figures most readily offered to girls her age, Vasconcellos remembers being desperate for other places to turn. “When I was younger, my role model was a cartoon character named Reggie Rockets,” she cracks. “That says a lot.” It certainly speaks to why Lisa Whitaker was motivated to create Girls Skate Network in 2003, providing a platform for girls around the planet to envision themselves doing power ollies and pressure flips even if they didn’t look like Tony Hawk. Growing up, Vasconcellos never imagined that Thrasher magazine would eventually publish an annual list of the world’s top 10 women and non-binary skaters — in 2019, she ranked fourth.
“Skate Dreams” offers a crush of similar stories, all of which spill into each other with the casualness of a skate compilation video you might find on YouTube (or Girls Skate Network, which is still going strong). We meet Cara-Beth Burnside, the godmother of grinds, who skated in men’s competitions during the 1980s due to a lack of alternatives, and became the first woman to have her own signature skate shoe. And Nicole Hause, who got into skateboarding because “I wanted to go fast and I wanted to go high,” and then went on to become the first woman to pull off an invert to fakie. And, perhaps most memorably of all, we meet Kouv ‘Tin’ Chansangva, who was raised in a poor and abusive home in Phnom Penh, but saw a different life for herself when the NGO Skateistan opened a branch in Cambodia. Now she’s a general manager and instructor at the skate park there, where a massive photo of her is draped across one of the walls as an example.
Every one of these women has a different story, and Edwards’ 80-minute film is spread thin (to put it mildly) whenever it swerves between them. But these stories are also just one story told in a litany of different ways, and “Skate Dreams” is so effective for how it pools them together — not in the spirit of competition, but rather in the spirit of mutual support. Swelling into more than the sum of its parts as a direct result of the scrapbook approach that can make it feel shaggy and scattershot along the way, “Skate Dreams” eschews the hagiographic vibes that might’ve been hard to shake from an individually oriented history, focusing instead on the hard work, teamwork, and collective action required for women and non-binary people to create space for each other in the world (though an even more pronounced emphasis on non-binary skaters would have been helpful evidence of the film’s inclusive messaging).
Knoop likens the process of creating the Olympic program to herding cats, and the flittering attention of Edwards’ film mirrors that energy to a tee — all of that excitement and potential in search of the structure required to sustain it. Knoop also insists that it doesn’t matter who makes the team or triumphs in Tokyo, and “Skate Dreams” takes her at her word without ever settling for the “just be happy that you’re here” attitude that greeted women at the first X Games where they were allowed to compete. A light and loving celebration of its subjects and the inspiration they’ve offered to each other, Edwards’ doc prefers to package those accomplishments as “celebrate what you’ve built together,” and it frames them together for people all over the world to see.
“Skate Dreams” premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.