In her recent opinion piece for NBC News, Jillian Richardson posits that America’s young people are suffering from a lack of meaningful connection. She says, “The average person in the U.S. has only one close friend, according to a study published in the American Sociological Review. One in four people have no confidantes at all …This level of disconnection is dangerous to our health. Loneliness has been alleged to have the same impact on our life expectancy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, with a risk factor that rivals excessive drinking or obesity. ” What does it take to create lasting, intimate relationships?
On the surface, Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen is about a group of young skaters. Young women skaters to be specific, navigating a world filled mostly by guys. To me, this film is really exploring relationships … how we connect, how we bond, how we become intimate with other people. What holds us back from intimacy and real friendships?
Newcomer and real-life skater Rachelle Vinberg plays Camille, a lonely teen living in suburban Long Island. After an accident on her board, her mother forbids her to continue skating. But Camille — like many passionate athletes — can’t not do it. She has been following Skate Kitchen — a group of girl skaters — on Instagram, and she sneaks off to New York to find them.
Moselle’s documentary roots serve her well (she directed 2015’s The Wolfpack.) As Camille gets to know the Skate Kitchen crew, the low contrast, magic hour vérité cinematography grounds us in this world, putting us on a skateboard with Camille as she meets her newfound friends. We feel her discomfort even as she yearns for connection, and the camera is part of the world. These kids use video and photography to document themselves, but also to connect with each other. We see them hover collectively around camera backs and phones to watch skate moves they are learning, or executing to prove themselves. Social media in this world does help with connection, and for Camille drives her to have the first uncomfortable face-to-face meeting with this new group of friends. Kids just like her.
The theme of loneliness, and the ensuing search for meaningful connection runs from beginning to end. Moselle crafts a story showcasing skate culture, and how these young women are searching for meaning and acceptance within this heretofore male-dominated sport. She handles these (mostly) non-actors so deftly that I can’t help wondering how much of the film was improv, and how much actual script. The language and movement feel so fluid, so natural, and at the same time so awkward, the way many teens actually speak to each other. And while skating is the constant, really it’s about Camille getting to know these girls, and understanding themselves as newly formed adults.
When I reflect back on my own coming of age, it seems insane that from the age of 14 to 18 we essentially grow out of our childhood bodies, take on the appearance of adults, and are expected to be adults. These girls are becoming women before our eyes. Navigating gender identity, sex, independance, peer relationships, parental relationships, and it all translates to the screen seamlessly. We journey with Camille from loneliness to connectedness and back to loneliness again.
Warning: Light spoilers here:
One of the great moments in the film comes as Camille, after having left home in anger, comes back to her mother (played beautifully and against type by Orange is the New Black’s Elizabeth Rodriguez.) She seeks solace, nursing the wounds of relationship mistakes and broken emotions. She goes home because she is still a kid, she doesn’t know what else to do, and she needs her parent. Instead of berating her daughter for going MIA, her mom asks her if she is okay. Camille can’t really answer because the pain is raw, and because she doesn’t know how. But her mom is there to hold her. It is a wonderful moment, modelling behaviour I think many young adults need and crave … parents who are willing to just hold them, physically show how much they love them. And love them without sermonizing to them. This is something I am unfortunately very guilty of with my own adult children, and it always goes better when I just listen and don’t try and tell them how they should feel or what they should do differently. The film gets this moment just right.
Rodriguez isn’t a big presence in the film, but when she is on screen she is so worth watching. Because after she holds her daughter, in the days that follow she gives one simple piece of advice. Camille tells her of the Skate Kitchen, “We’re not friends anymore … I messed up.” And we are back with Camille’s loneliness. A teenager who has no idea what to do, or how to move forward.
“You could apologize,” Mom replies.
“It’s complicated,” Camille tells her.
“Tell them you’re sorry.” Mom says, emphasizing her suggestion. And that is it. So simple, so powerful, and one of the best lessons I have gotten from a movie in a long time. This seems, to me, the key to creating lasting, intimate relationships and being just a little less lonely. Or maybe even conquering loneliness altogether.
I give Skate Kitchen a simple and elegant 10 out of 10. Rent or buy this movie right now. It deserves to be seen. Watch it with a friend, and you never know … you may end up being even better friends for it.
- Jonah Hill’s Mid90s also came out this past fall, and offers an interesting companion/comparison piece, also set in skater culture.
- Moselle first met two of the real life Skate Kitchen members on a train. She cast them in a short film for Italian brand Miu Miu. After working with them on the short, she decided to write and direct this feature starring the real-life women. You can see the short here.
- Oh yeah … this movie passes the Bechdel test with flying colors!
- I bought the Blu-Ray and will loan to anyone who asks with one condition: If you like the movie, then you have to shell out your cold hard cash and buy a Blu-Ray yourself. Only if you like it. If you buy it, you can keep it or give it away.