“Skate Kitchen” opens on a golden summer afternoon at the local skate park with a series of tricks. The first are performed by the young protagonist, who races up ramps and ollies on a rail and glides along a c-shaped bowl with a slick-sure ease.
The smoothest trick is the one landed by the director, Crystal Moselle, who leads you to believe that the skater — khaki box shorts, tall white socks, worn gray Vans, and a face hidden from view — is a boy. Misdirection: The skater is in fact a young woman, Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), and as soon as you’re shown her face and learned your lesson, that boys aren’t the only ones who can shred, the scene takes a swerve. Camille flubs a flip, lands awkwardly on her board, and injures her groin. (A friend later describes the injury as getting “credit carded.”) Blood stains her pants and streams down her thigh, she limps to the gynecologist for a procedure, and by the end of the first scene Camille’s mother has made her promise to give up skating for good. “Maybe you won’t be able to have kids next time,” she scolds her daughter, in Spanish.
It’s an alluring, wrenching opening that crams into five brisk and mostly wordless minutes the thrills and scares and pains of the skateboard, Camille’s cherished ticket to freedom from mom and boredom, sexism and suburbia. “Skate Kitchen,” a coming-of-age story set on four wheels, has the distinct charm of a film assured of its voice, even as its central character strives to find her own.
Camille, played by Vinberg, is an 18-year-old living on Long Island with her mother, a kind but stern divorcee. It’s summer, and Camille couldn’t care less about college. Her university is Instagram, where Camille learns the latest tricks and stays apprised of the app’s active skating community, based mostly in New York. One day she sees a post for a “girls skate sesh,” in southeast Manhattan. So she sneaks away to the city, in spite of her mother’s prohibition, and becomes fast friends with a colorful group of female skaters known by their shared Instagram account, skate_kitchen.
Recent films have begun to reveal something essential and unnerving about the generation that’s grown up on smartphones, with Instagram for a scrapbook and Twitter for a diary. “Skate Kitchen” uses social media mostly for its intended purpose: to foster community. Unlike “Eighth Grade,” which follows a lonely and creative teenage girl through the digital morass, “Skate Kitchen” shows a young and credulous woman whose iPhone seems, for once, actually to improve her life. Initially an outsider, Camille quickly learns to roll with the cool crowd, a bona fide friend group that talks sex and does drugs but is by every measure diverse and uniformly unwilling to tolerate b.s. (Disloyal friends? Nope. Sexual assault? Never.)
Moselle’s touch is light, her vision atmospheric and bright. The most spectacular sequences take place on the streets of New York, as a party of skaters basks in the easy joy of being young and free on a skateboard. It’s youth as a rose in the concrete, New York City as a playground for almost adults. Moselle, who also directed “The Wolfpack,” the celebrated 2015 documentary, reportedly met the core cast of “Skate Kitchen” on a subway. It’s a fitting origin story for an endearing clique of non-professionals that cashes in on a lo-fi authenticity hard to fake and easy to wreck.
The entire movie hangs like a varial kickflip on the strength its star. Vinberg is quiet, subdued, and affected when the situation demands: feuding with mom, dabbling in weed, missing her train and slamming down her board in vexation. Like the rest of the cast, she’s a longtime skater, and the many skateboarding scenes have the sleek polish of a music video. (The film’s use of “Young Dumb & Broke” by Khalid might be more inspired than the official video.) The only celebrity in the cast is Jaden Smith, who plays an aspiring photographer and love interest of Camille. He gives a solid but undistinguished performance that, to his credit, has the humility not to steal a scene from his female counterparts.
They’d probably steal it right back, as in one split-second shot easy to miss. In busy Manhattan, Skate Kitchen is seen blowing down a sidewalk, where a little girl is holding onto her mother’s hand. The young women roll past and the girl does a double take — who are these perfect boarded beings? — before breaking into a wide toothless smile. “God is a girl,” Camille says at one point in the film. And for two seconds, in the afterglow of the board-blazing idols, a young inspired girl can’t help but agree.
Directed by Crystal Moselle. Written by Moselle, Jen Silverman, Aslihan Unaldi. Starring Rachelle Vinberg, Ardelia Lovelace, Nina Moran, Elizabeth Rodriguez, and Jaden Smith. At AMC Boston Common, Kendall Square. 108 minutes. R (language, drug and sexual content, some nudity, all involving teens).
Graham Ambrose can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.