"Skate or die." For people who skateboard, those words evoke a way of life. All skating, all the time. Given the community's visible gender imbalance, however, it's also typically a refrain heard from young, overconfident men.
"It's an intimidating place for girls to come into a skatepark," says Crystal Moselle, filmmaker of Skate Kitchen, her new narrative feature that is premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend, and coming off the heels of her acclaimed and out-there documentary The Wolfpack, which won Sundance's U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize in 2015.
The "Skate Kitchen," as seen in the movie, is actually a "rowdy-ass girl crew" of skaters that shred sidewalks, smoke pot and post clips of their best tricks on Instagram. They're sought out by Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a young skater seeking a sense of place and who eventually becomes a key member of the squad.
In real life, though, the Skate Kitchen Moselle is riffing on is an actual collective of talented young skating enthusiasts, who have worked with brands like Nike, G-Star RAW and Miu Miu (the latter collaboration being a short film directed by Moselle, a project which provided the spark for this feature adaptation). In the new narrative feature, each Skate Kitchen member is playing a fictionalized version of themselves.
Screening in Sundance's NEXT program, a section described as "pure, bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling," there is something about Skate Kitchen that feels undeniably alive. "Skate or die" is a fun maxim, sure, but there is an unruly vitality in Moselle's work that goes deeper than that. "Skateboard culture is a total outsider culture," the director, 37, says. "It's the people that didn't feel like they belonged, and it's something they found together."
The film feels so vibrant because of moments just like this: A group of skater girls talking about tampons beneath a poster of Elissa Steamer, the skateboarding legend who rose to fame as the first woman to go professional. Just about everything about Skate Kitchen is bold – and to use the vernacular of the scene, it's also super dope, telling a freewheeling story about youth, acceptance and self-discovery. Moselle's skill behind the camera ensures all of the material is fresh, none of it fake – well, at least as "real" as one can get when filming actors playing facsimiles of their own personas.
Authenticity is, of course, an essential concept for Moselle, who emerged as a documentary filmmaker with The Wolfpack, which told the incredible-but-true story of New York's Angulo brothers, who were kept in a cramped apartment by their paranoid father, learning most of life's lessons from VHS movies. But, Moselle says, turning to narrative was a breath of fresh air. "I feel like it almost holds me back," she says of non-fiction film. "In pure documentary filmmaking … there's all these rules. And I think I was kind of traumatized by that experience."
Much like the subculture it delves into, even the genesis of Skate Kitchen basically breaks all the rules. "I met these girls on the train," Moselle recalls of the original skateboarding crew. "I approached them and was like, 'Hey, what's up? Would you ever want to do a film project together?' And I got their information and we started hanging out."
Playing Camille's moody romantic interest, Jaden Smith – the only recognizable performer in a cast of non-actors – also entered the picture in a distinctly unusual way. "He had hit Rachelle up over Instagram just to skateboard," says Moselle, who was happy to cast him on one condition. "He can be in this film, but he has to come hang out. This has to feel authentic. It can't feel like an outsider that doesn't talk the way they talk."
When you hear "Jaden Smith," it's easy to think of him as a living Twitter meme: "Chemtrails," he tweeted without context in 2015, just one of many head-scratcher bons mots he's known for. In Skate Kitchen, however, he confidently kick-pushes past previous impressions.
"He cruised around with us for two weeks," Moselle says, adding that during filming, Jaden was in the process of getting better at skating. "The girls pushed him. He skateboarded with us the first three days, but after the third day, we're like: How the hell are you landing a heelflip right now?"
Which is ideal, as building a community and helping others get better is always what the original Skate Kitchen has always been about, Moselle says. "This collective that they have, it's just to empower other women to skateboard."
And they do. In one key sequence, Skate Kitchen members tear up a sidewalk, causing a little girl passing by to turn her head in awe. The scene isn't showy – in fact, none of the film is, despite painting New York as the coolest place on Earth. "I didn't want to nail it on the head. You don't have to be like: 'Girls can skateboard, everybody!'" Moselle says. "You just have to see them do it and want to be like them."