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In director Crystal Moselle's Skate Kitchen, left, Rachelle Vinberg stars as Camille, who meets and befriends an all-girl, New York-based skateboarding crew called Skate Kitchen.

Courtesy of Mongrel

  • Skate Kitchen
  • Directed by: Crystal Moselle
  • Written by: Crystal Moselle, Jen Silverman and Aslihan Unaldi
  • Starring: Jaden Smith, Rachelle Vinberg and Dede Lovelace
  • Classification: 14A; 100 minutes

rating

I was recently asked by someone I’d just met what my favourite sound was. The inquisitor seemed alarmed when I told him it was not rain or birds or waves, but a skateboard rolling on pavement, its wheels crunching the cracks in the sidewalk and the bumps in the road, smacking the ground upon landing then gliding away unbothered. The tenor of it all. Resilient.

In director Crystal Moselle’s new film, Skate Kitchen, this constant sonant backdrop and its connotations of durability and dedication delineate more than just a symphony of nostalgia to my ears, they also provide a score for the magic and limits of friendship. The sound of skateboards ardently hum beneath the feet of Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) and her pack with unbreakable continuity, the noise itself a roar of loyalty and protection, bruised and made well again in the New York City wilderness.

Although scripted, the film impressively stars real-life members of Skate Kitchen, a skateboarding collective co-founded by Vinberg and friends during the group’s high-school years. (Moselle first approached the women on the New York subway, where she saw them holding skateboards.) Before Camille finds the crew, she spends her days skating alone on her residential Long Island street and scrolling through Instagram from bed, gazing at photos of the Lower East Side vivacity she can’t quite get to.

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Moselle smartly juxtaposes Camille’s experiences of self-preservation and loneliness with those of being cared for. Her fog of isolation lifts as the friends grow closer, nurturing each other while menacing the streets of New York. They wear matching friendship bracelets and keep an eye on each other’s backpacks. They defend each other. They comfort each other through disclosures of sexual assault. When Camille has a falling out with her mom, she moves in with Janay (Dede Lovelace). The friendships change her energy. Gradually, she becomes comfortable with her body and her board, moving where she pleases with a skateboard purring under her feet, timidity ever-dissolving as she whooshes through the world unafraid.

The camaraderie Camille eventually finds does not come without first learning how awful people can be. When she sustains a gruesome pelvic injury – known as being “credit-carded” – at her home skate park, none of the boys who watched her fall so much as ask if she’s okay, leaving her to hobble alone to the hospital for stitches, skateboard in hand. She later confides the injury in her new friends, who grant her a sense of validation for the first time. “Dude, that’s so scary,” Kurt (Nina Moran) tells her. “I’ve always feared that, like you’re really tough for that.” (Kurt also, by request, inspects Janay’s vagina to assuage her insecurity, reassuring her that, “It’s perfect! It’s valid! You’re good!”)

In her 2015 memoir, Girl in a Band, musician Kim Gordon wrote that “[Men] found some closeness by focusing on a third thing that wasn’t them: music, video games, golf, women. Male friendships were triangular in shape, and that allowed two men some version of intimacy.” The friendships in Skate Kitchen are bound by an exhilarated devotion to skating. What deepens them, and differentiates them from the alt-macho friendships between the film’s (mostly misogynistic) young men, is that Camille and her crew truly love one another, maternal in the absence of mothers. (As much as Skate Kitchen calls gender roles into question, one doubts this could have been a film about young men.)

Surely buoyed by the fact the film’s characters are close in real life is how true these friendships feel, an authenticity ignited most hotly when they fight. A fatal flaw in the structure of friend groups – whether communities or cliques – is that it’s easy to comprehend the role of comrade before understanding how to be a good person outside one’s social shelter. It is wearying to watch Camille foolishly, treasonably befriend Janay’s ex, Devon (Jaden Smith) despite knowing it will hurt her. Conflict is where the film winces and where it wins. Moselle resists the urge to romanticize Camille’s stint as persona non grata, instead laying out the precariousness of friendship – oft portrayed in high drama on soap operas and HBO, rarely examined realistically. All that love and loyalty can be weaponized, and for a spell the film’s mood becomes bleak. As Camille desperately initiates herself into the group of boys, a seedy sense of danger creeps into every scene. My own body grew tense, worried, not unreasonably, that one of them would attack her, given the film’s sage portrayal of young masculinity.

As both a viewer and a human being, it’s difficult to watch seemingly indestructible sisterhoods crumble at the scene, especially at the fault of a male love interest, who makes it out unscathed. It would have been convenient for Moselle to end on a didactic note with Camille forever alone, watching from afar as her old friends carry on without her. (Camille, as with all of us, is constantly on Instagram, a point for which Moselle should be applauded, because it’s real.)

But Moselle believes in the power of girls. The friendships through which Camille learns how to be loved become the anguish that breaks her heart and the forgiveness that humbly heals her.

And resiliently they soar through the city, a harmony of wheels on pavement.

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Skate Kitchen opens Aug. 17 in Toronto and Aug. 24 in Montreal and Vancouver.