New York City is a city that lives for the silver screen. Thanks to Woody Allen, all it takes is one glimpse of the Brooklyn bridge for the sounds of Gershwin to start ringing in your ears, and you’re suddenly transported to an almost otherworldly place. It’s busy, it’s loud, it’s dirty, it’s full of culture. Yet, Manhattan was a long time ago, and even though the steam of Taxi Driver has long settled, and the goop of an exploded marshmallow man has long been cleaned up, the city of New York seemingly can’t escape from the iconography that helped establish its character in cinema.
Enter Crystal Moselle.
Moselle’s first film, documentary The Wolfpack, was a look at the reemergence of the modern culture within New York city. It told the story of six brothers who live their life through films, all from the perspective of being confined in a Manhattan apartment for almost the full duration of their lives. Externally exposed to a city that never sleeps via cinema and other elements of culture, the brothers shaped their viewpoint of a world they lived in, but weren’t able to engage with.
In some ways, Moselle, a San Franciscan, shared the perspective of these brothers. With fresh eyes and a new perspective, she engages with New York City in a way that feels reinvigorated. With some 3.9 million people living on Manhattan alone, and once being the entry point for many migrants into America, the wealth of unique stories within the city are endless. The Wolfpack showed a documentarian who was seeing a city through new eyes – discovering side alleys and deli’s that somehow eluded the gaze of a film camera.
Moselle’s first fictional film, Skate Kitchen, is a pseudo-documentary affair, having pulled the idea from her short, That One Day, which employed the real-life skate crew ‘The Skate Kitchen’ to combine skate and fashion in a short for Miu Miu. The plot is simple – Long Island-er Camille (played by ‘The Skate Kitchen’ co-founder Rachelle Vinberg) lives for skating, but is geographically removed from the lifestyle. Location isn’t the only thing keeping Camille from engaging with skate culture – her mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez) wants her to abandon the tomboy-ish lifestyle after a horrendous accident that opens the film.
But, the urge to skate runs deep in Camille’s blood, and in turn, she makes the long journey into Manhattan to hit the skate parks and engage with Skate Kitchen. There, she finds the people whose boarding skills are displayed for all to see via the Instagram account Skate Kitchen. These are an energetic troupe of young women, kicking down the door of gender stereotypes and showing their skills off with pride. Microaggressions run rampant between a rival male group of skateboarders who use the same parks as the women do, notably with one of the girls exes, Devon (a terrific Jaden Smith).
Part coming of age story, part exposure to a sub-culture that feels misrepresented in media, Skate Kitchen has a fairly predictable plot. Young person wants to do something that their mother disapproves of, lies to mother and does it anyhow. Finds a group of people they like to be with, an argument jeopardises that friendship. Argument resolves itself and lessons are learnt. Roll credits.
The argument with her mum has her leaving home (of course, come the credits, that relationship will be patched up), Camille ends up shacking up with her new friend Janay (Dede Lovelace) – Devon’s ex. After becoming workmates, Camille and Devon start hanging out, skating and taking photo’s around the city, and in turn, a fracture between Janay and Camille appears. The predictability of these tensions doesn’t belie the spirit of the film, with the energy and companionship that the women have for themselves and each other shining through bright – and anyhow, does every film have to smash apart the expected plot beats that it’s working off?
The casting of the actual Skate Kitchen crew helps with the natural, comfortable performances. It’s clear these people live and breath New York, day in day out, and love the city they engage with on an intimate level. On top of this, the conversations that the women have are frank, open and empowering. When Camille opens up about her accident, the conversation moves to discussing menstruation and sex. Nina Moran’s memorable Kurt pushes the conversation into different areas, almost as if she’s easing Camille and her friends into discussing topics that forty years ago may have been frowned upon.
Sure, Woody Allen’s New York had women and men discussing sex and their bodies in some regards – but it was always in an awkward, jilted manner. Love or hate Woody Allen’s work (with or without his real life issues), it’s undeniable that his view of New York carries some heavy weight in the world of cinema and the portrayal of this ever changing city. Now, I’m not suggesting that Skate Kitchen alone is going to help tear down Allen’s New York, but rather, it’s part of the continuing realigning and affirmation of the image of modern New York. Allen’s New York – as seen in one of his last New York tales, Whatever Works – is now out of touch and tone deaf. It may have once moved to that beat, but it is certainly not the world it is now.
Seventeen years removed from 9/11, New York is finally able to shake off the tragedy in film and present itself anew. The women of Skate Kitchen have grown up in a diverse, gentrified New York – and it shows. Within Moselle’s Skate Kitchen, it’s not hard to hear the dancing footsteps of Frances Ha just out of frame, or feel the vibe of the ageing romance in Love is Strange, or assume the violence of echoing gentrification as in Nasty Baby. These new stories present a modern, real New York – to use a cringeworthy word, it’s as if New York has had a cinematic reboot, and while the streets are the same, the people who exist in them are different. The white, straight men and women of the seventies have been replaced with diverse, LGBTIQ+, out and proud, gender neutral (if they want to be) folks of today. The identity of the ‘New Yorker’ has changed completely – they’re still culturally sensitive, but also culturally and societally inclusive.
Those microaggressions between the different skater groups become redundant when Camille joins up with the men, taking to the streets at night to skate with each other. These feel like increasingly diminishing shockwaves from gender stereotypes of long past – men skate with men, women don’t skate at all, and that’s how it’ll always be. But, it’s 2018, and that shit doesn’t fly anymore.
Crystal Moselle’s direction is subtle, utilising the great cinematography of Shabier Kirchner to amplify the documentary-esque vibe. The streets of New York have been exposed before, but not like this – not with raucous youth skating down the streets in between cars, with the wind in their hair. It’s fresh, it’s exciting, it’s a genuinely great thing to witness.
Skate Kitchen sits alongside Girlhood, Diary of a Teenage Girl, Somersault and Real Women Have Curves as being some of the finest films directed by women about young women growing up. Crystal Moselle’s vision of New York is one of hope and inspiration, and the team of skaters that make up Skate Kitchen are some of the most enjoyable people you’ll spend time with in modern cinema. Next time you think of New York, Gerswhin will be gone, replaced by funk and hip hop, there’ll be a rainbow of bright colours, the sun will be shining and the smiles will be plenty.
New York is new again.
Director: Crystal Moselle
Cast: Rachelle Vinberg, Jaden Smith, Dede Lovelace
Writers: Crystal Moselle, Jen Silverman, Aslihan Unaldi