When the teenage skate boarder Nina Moran talks about the first time she got on a skateboard, I instantly recognized how she felt, that sense of freedom, of independence, of confidence that comes with moving under your own power. Taking up cycling in my late-30s after a decade’s hiatus almost cured me almost instantly of a crippling bout of depression. Like Australian cycling champion Hugh Opperman I plan to be cycling well into my 90s. It’s also part of the reason why I hate Winter. The cold, the wind, the salt, the hysterical click-driven weather reporting in the media all conspire to keep me locked up inside like a teenager grounded by his parents.
For Rachelle Vinberg, the star of the 2018 film Skate Kitchen, the problem is more than just the weather. Skate boarding is a male dominated sport. A complex system of bullying, cat-calling, and more subtle negging effectively excludes girls from most skate parks. As Nina Moran, remarks, for a girl to enter a skate park alone is a bit like becoming an animal in a zoo, to suddenly find oneself at the center of more unwanted attention than you ever imagined possible.
Enter the “Skate Kitchen,” a loosely organized group of female skateboarders organized by Moran and Vinberg, largely on social media, the name “Skate Kitchen” having its origin in the taunt anybody who’s ever been to a skate park or spent time on social media has certainly heard. “Go to the kitchen and make me a sandwich bitch.” Both girls realized that while boys would subject any girl who entered a skate parks alone to bullying and sexual harassment, the same boys would make space for an aggressive, rowdy, well-organized group of teenage girls. If a skate park became a “skate kitchen,” then surely girls not only belonged there, but deserved to take control. But the obstacle to Rachelle Vinberg’s becoming a skate-boarder was not only the sexism of male skaters, but her own socially conservative, overprotective mother.
Skate Kitchen, directed by independent filmmaker Crystal Moselle, and given heightened publicity by Will Smith’s son Jaden Smith, who plays a prominent role in the film, opens with Vinberg, a Nassau County teenager who somehow manages to look like both a extraordinary pretty “it girl” in the vein of Chloe Sevigny, who starred in Larry Clark’s mean spirited, nihilistic Kids, also about skaters, and a shy, studios nerd, getting a bad injury while trying to pull of a difficult skater’s trick. She “credit cards,” skater slang for landing on the sharp edge of your skate board board with your crotch, as painful for women as for men. As blood pours out of her shorts down her legs, boys at the skate park point at her and shout “look she’s having her period,” willfully unaware of the painful injury that will require her to go to the hospital and get stitched up.
While Vinberg’s mother then decides to forbid her from skateboarding, she fails to confiscate her skateboard or her cell phone. The first part of the movie center’s on Vinberg’s schemes to get into Manhattan, expensive on the Long Island Railroad, and to trick her mother into believing she’s in the library studying. When Vinberg’s mother discovers her daughter’s elaborate deception, Vinberg, who’s over 18, moves to the city into the house of a friend, gets a job at a local supermarket, acquires a new skateboard, and continues skating. The scenes were Vinberg talks about her parents’ divorce, and about her attempts to come to terms with her own sexuality and gender identity — she would pound her chest to prevent herself from developing breasts — are especially revealing and complex. Firmly in the camp of her father as a small child, she decided to live with her mother when she entered puberty and needed a female role model. Now a young adult, but still a virgin, she finds herself at the center of a group of girls, and boys, with far more sexual and social experience than herself. She’s cisgender and straight — “I like boys” she finally confesses to Moran, who’s gay —and eventually becomes attracted to Jaden Smith, who has been in a previous relationship with Janey, another member of the Skate Kitchen. Janey mistakenly believes Vinberg and Smith are lovers. They’re not. He friend zones her. Vinberg is briefly kicked out of the group she helped found, but ultimately reconciles with both her friends and her mother.
Skate Kitchen has three great strengths. The first is Moselle’s cinematography. Skate Kitchen is only Moselle’s second film, but she’s a natural talent. Indeed, the way Moselle films New York City reminds me of the way it used to be in the 1990s before Bloomberg and hyper-gentrification, a gritty, working-class, yet poetic city full of possibility for young people struggling to come to a sense of their identity. The second is the cast. Vinberg really stands out, but the non-professional actors who make up the Skate Kitchen all give good performances. Indeed, Jaden Smith, the only professional actor in the film, seems to be the only member of the cast who can’t act. The film’s third, and greatest, strength is the way it explores the concept of working class solidarity. Jaden Smith, for example, is perfectly free to date Vinberg if he wants — he and Janey broke up months before the events of the film — but Moselle treats the relationship between Janey and Vinberg, between the two girls, as something more important than Vinberg’s sexual awakening. What’s the morality of dating a friend’s ex, especially if it has a destructive effect on your extended circle of friends? What’s the best way to encourage a friend who’s sustained a demoralizing injury? How do girls go about convincing one another that they’re more than their sexuality, or even what they can accomplish?
Indeed, even though the girls spend a good deal of time talking about boys, Skate Kitchen still passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.