Skate Kitchen opens with a young girl being knocked off her feet.
Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) is attempting to stick the landing on a three-stair at the local skate park but winds up getting “credit-carded,” the graphically apt term for when a botched trick results in the skateboard being lodged between your legs.
The infantile skater boys flanking the park notice the blood pouring from Camille’s crotch, so of course they lob period jokes in her direction. Back at home, Camille’s concerned mother forbids her from picking up a skateboard again, fearing her daughter might injure herself to the point where she can’t bear children.
These external forces of doubt and gendered expectations permeate—yet never weigh down—Skate Kitchen, the raw but rapturous coming-of-age tale from director Crystal Moselle (2015’s The Wolfpack). Kitchen marks Moselle’s first foray into the narrative world, but as a seasoned documentarian, she rejects the feature format’s inherent artificiality in favor of an improvisational, naturalistic feel. She showcases her power of observation for the moment, serving as a nonjudgmental eye that follows a slightly fictionalized version of the real life all-girl skate crew.
As Camille finds a sense of solidarity, community, and freedom with the girls of Skate Kitchen—Kurt (Nina Moran), Eliza (Jules Lorenzo), Janay (Ardelia Lovelace), and Kabrina (Kabrina Adams) —after stumbling across their Instagram pages, she begins her four-wheeled ride along pavement on a journey toward self-discovery. Moselle captures how these young girls speak, party, find themselves within their own bodies, and deal with drama (a conflicted romance with a rival skater boy played by Jaden Smith) with a Harmony Korine-esque realism and immediacy, yet as a filmmaker she’s more interested in illuminating the optimism that’s brimming beneath all the angst and despair.
Skate Kitchen is gritty and gorgeous and never condescends to its protagonists or the skate culture it so accurately depicts. The film ends with Camille back on her feet, cruising the open road with her crew—unapologetic, carefree, and unconcerned with what the future might hold. The girls of Skate Kitchen—and Crystal Moselle—are embracing the beauty of the now.
Moselle hopped on the phone with me to discuss the film, her experience bonding with Skate Kitchen girls, and her artistic mission as a storyteller.
Skate Kitchen director Crystal Moselle. Photo: Nathanael Turner
ERIK ABRISS: How did you find yourself pulled into Skate Kitchen’s orbit?
CRYSTAL MOSELLE: About two and a half years ago I was on the G train subway in New York City and I saw these girls kind of hanging out in the corner of the train and talking, and they all had skateboards. Nina had this really interesting voice and tone that I was drawn to. I kind of just, like, started listening to their conversation. I asked them, “Hey, would you guys ever want to do something for a video project. I’m a director.” I think that I told them I did a film called The Wolfpack and they were like, “Yeah, okay whatever” [Laughs]. I had emailed them a couple weeks later but they didn’t answer. Then finally Rachelle answered and we met for coffee. We started talking about what it’s like for female skateboarders, the intimidation, and everything that surrounds it. I thought their story would make for an interesting documentary.
That type of unprompted encounter is similar to how you discovered the Angulo Brothers from your 2015 documentary The Wolfpack—just randomly spotting these kids with long hair running around the East Village in weird suits and then deciding to approach them.
You know, I have this curiosity thing that kind of just happens. The light bulb goes on and I feel like I have to discover what’s happening and that’s what pushes me to talk to people in the street.
So what factors inspired you to abandon the documentary approach and tell their story as a narrative film?
One day I got a call from Miu Miu, which is a fashion brand, and they had asked me to create a short film. They have this thing called Women’s Tales where they bring on different female directors and they have them make these short films that premiere at Venice Film Festival. So I went and pitched them a short film on the Skate Kitchen girls and they loved it. They thought it was a great idea. So I pitched it to the girls and they were into it as well. It couldn’t really be a documentary because it had to be done in a short amount of time.
So I just started speaking with Rachelle about her experience coming to New York. She detailed to me this one day where she came to New York and it changed her whole perspective and it shifted so much about herself. She hung out with all these girls who skate. She ended up on the roof of this building and they’re looking over the city, probably smoking cigarettes or something. There was this sense of freedom for the first time. She said everything kind of felt like, oh, this is what it means to grow up a little bit. So that’s what we made the focus of the short: that one day that where you experience that shift.
That short film did pretty well. I ended up at the Venice Film Festival and it got a lot of attention and I spoke to Kim Yutani from Sundance and I sent her the film. She said, “Please make this into a feature film. I wanna see this movie.” So that’s how it all kind of moved on from there.
Skateboarders are notoriously territorial. What was your process like in gaining the girls’ trust in such a way that allowed you to access their inner circle, and thus their inner lives?
It was very organic. We just hung out. We did that short film and it was really fun and we got to have a little party for it. They were still forming the Skate Kitchen at the same time as the short film so they would come over to my house a lot. I have this giant couch that everyone lays on. We’d read books and make art and watch TV and listen to music. It was this really sweet little moment that I think my place kind of became this safe space for them. They could be themselves. There weren’t any rules. There was this thing that, even with me being the older person, they were almost taking care of me a little bit as well. That’s where I started to witness these conversations that they have. These pure moments. What their perspective is. Their outlook on life felt very timeless but also very specific to right now.
So I started to create little scenes from these conversations. We started doing these rehearsals where we’d rehearse these scenes and have the girls explore them more, workshop them a bit, then create new scenes from there. It was a really cool process. I really enjoyed it. I felt almost like I was their age again. Like I drank a potion to make myself young again.
The visual language of Skate Kitchen is very hypnotic. It’s a narrative feature, yet you still blend in elements of cinéma-vérité that make the film feel like an actual gritty skate team video couched within this touching coming-of-age tale. How familiar were you with the skate world before you met the Skate Kitchen?
I grew up in communities that had tons of skateboarders in them. When I came to New York, I hung out with a lot of skateboarders. So for this film, I had this idea that I really wanted things to feel like they’re happening for the first time. I wanted it to feel like a discovery, just like when you’re shooting skateboarding. When you’re shooting skateboarding, you don’t know what’s gonna happen. They aren’t always going to land the trick. There’s a lot of movement and discovery and freestyling. There was a schedule for this film and everything kind of has its time and place, so within those parameters we were still able to go off script and find things in the moment. I just always want the camera to be searching and finding things rather than have it feel set up.
What kind of conversations did you have with the girls when fleshing out the script, especially when deciding the central story would be built around Rachelle’s character Camille?
Rachelle and I just bonded from the first moment I met her and Nina on the train. When she came in from Long Island, we sat and talked and she just had just had something really deep about her that you can feel. She doesn’t have to do much to feel the sadness, to feel things. I think that this role gave her an opportunity to let those versions of herself come through. But it’s just how things were. I started hanging out with her first, and then I met and got to know the other girls. Then the other parts of the film started to build until it became what it is.
“I want to create fully fictionalized movies that feel completely real.” -Crystal Moselle
I definitely don’t want to take attention away from the girls because they’re all such magnetic and commanding presences, but bringing Jaden Smith into the fold was a bit of inspired casting. How did he come on board?
He actually hit up Rachelle on Instagram. Apparently one of his friend had reached out to him and told him to check out her page and was like, “This girl is sick.” He was so curious about her skateboarding and he’s always been into skating and stuff, too. He hit her up and they talked for a second but never met up or anything. Then when we were working on the script, I was like, “What would really actually shake up the group? You guys always get in fights and there’s always drama but it’s small stuff that you eventually work out. What would be something that would really piss you off?” It’s always, at that age, something that has to do with boys or relationships. So we thought, Okay we need a guy in here. I did auditions with several boys, and Jaden kept coming up and we were always talking about him. I ended up getting a second to talk with his agent, who’s a friend of mine. I didn’t realize he was his agent. I was like, “How do I get in touch with Jaden Smith?” And he said, “I rep Jaden Smith.” Great. Perfect. [Laughs] He sent the script to Jaden and he loved it. He was really excited to do this.
Themes of community, self-discovery, and defying expectation are the lifeblood of Skate Kitchen. The characters in the film—and the skate world writ large—place a premium on authenticity. As someone who doesn’t traffic in fiction and frequently captures non-actors in their natural environments, what does authenticity mean to you as a filmmaker?
I want to create fully fictionalized movies that feel completely real. This is me exploring the craft because I’ve done a lot of documentary work. I’ve been in the commercial world for a long time. I want to try to find this realism within these nuanced moments. I eventually would like to do that within a bigger budget film because it’s like, when I hear dialogue in these movies, I’m so sensitive to it. I’m usually thinking in my head, nobody would ever say that in real life. That’s not how people talk, that’s not how they would behave. How can you let that loose? I don’t know if I’ll ever master it, but I want to.