The teenage Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) doesn’t look like much of a shredder in the opening scene of “Skate Kitchen,” a fiction feature directed by Crystal Moselle, whose documentary “The Wolfpack” made a big splash with indie aficionados in 2015.
Boarding at a small park in her neighborhood, Camille, plainly dressed and wearing eyeglasses, takes a tumble attempting a tricky maneuver and bloodies up her leg and shorts. We don’t learn the specific nature of her injury until later, but it’s alarming enough that her mother tries to forbid her from taking up the board again.
And we know what that means. Camille, who lives on Long Island, secretly treks out to Manhattan to check out a skate session for girls, and quickly makes some friends. The group she falls in with is diverse, tough, funny. Their ringleader seems to be the brash, blond Kurt (Nina Moran), but Camille forms a warmer affinity with Janay (Dede Lovelace), whose doting dad will cook lasagna for the crew at a moment’s notice.
“Skate Kitchen” is not a movie that’s interested in building up a whole lot of narrative momentum. Camille leaves her home, finds a job in the city and seeks romance (at first tentatively, and later with more force) with a guy from a crew of male knuckleheads who like to make trouble for the girls. She then has to deal with blowback from a perceived act of disloyalty. But none of these story elements are given more weight than the characters and their environment, both of which Ms. Moselle’s camera practically luxuriates in.
I call “Skate Kitchen” a fictional feature, but it’s more of a doc-narrative hybrid; almost all the members of Camille’s crew are part of a real skating collective that lends the movie its title. Jaden Smith, the cast’s sole celebrity component, plays Camille’s potential love interest, a very low-key skater with ambitions to be a photographer, and to his credit he blends in with the rest of the cast with nary a hiccup.
Older New Yorkers often wax nostalgic about places that were important to them and are gone, and grouse that the city doesn’t have the same “magic” that it used to. This movie is a useful reminder that each subsequent generation of New York children gets the city’s magic where they find it. “Skate Kitchen” is a depiction of a particular kind of hangout freedom that’s at its most beautiful when it’s nearly languid, as characters sit on tar-beach rooftops taking in the city at twilight, or navigate street corners on their boards in relaxed arcing motions. Many of its moments perfectly capture the delight and dread of a summer in the city at an age when you may think you’re invincible, in spite of all the everyday defeats life may be handing you.
It’s also very frank in showing what these kids today get up to, and while Camille turns 18 in the course of the film’s narrative, she looks younger, and she projects a vulnerability that makes the viewer feel protective, even as she proves to be pretty tough and assertive about her desires.
Unlike, say, the alarmist 1995 “Kids,” “Skate Kitchen” doesn’t portray rampaging teenage hormones as a unilaterally malevolent force. Rather, it acknowledges they exist, and that young people are not all of one mind in their responses to them. There’s a boarders’ party, fueled by drink and smoke, that turns into a polysexual near-orgy from which Camille demurs; and one character seems determined to live asexually, at least for the time being. The movie’s disinclination to judge doesn’t deprive it of a point of view. “Skate Kitchen” is unfailingly compassionate to, and genuinely appreciative of, the people it chronicles.
Rated R for language, sexuality, drug use — the usual stuff that the teenagers depicted doing such stuff in the movie apparently need to be protected from seeing in movies. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.