Entertainment

Director Crystal Moselle's Inspiration for 'Skate Kitchen' Was the Real, Shredding Teen Girl Crew

skate kitchen
Magnolia Pictures

In Crystal Moselle's 2015 debut, the acclaimed documentary The Wolfpack, she spotlighted the Angulo siblings, seven teens living in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, forbidden by their father from leaving their apartment. She met them via chance encounter, befriended them, and so the film took shape. Her 2018 follow-up, the narrative feature Skate Kitchen, coalesced much in the same way, shaping a story around a skate crew of young women Moselle also bumped into in the Lower East Side.

"They come to me!" Moselle says in earnest about stumbling across her subjects, confabbing with Thrillist before Skate Kitchen’s New York City premiere. On its face, this sounds like a blessed talent. Most storytellers have to dig up their own content. In Moselle’s case, the stories find her, but that doesn’t necessarily make telling them any less challenging. "It’s a lot of work," she admits, though she cuts such an easygoing persona -- even with the film’s premiere mere hours away -- that it’s impossible to picture her working any other way.

Maybe Moselle will never stop following those characters around New York City, or maybe Skate Kitchen will just push her toward projects staffed by trained actors. She takes inspiration from other people, having made Skate Kitchen with the young women actually on the Skate Kitchen crew, which she describes as a team-up between her and "the girls," and that spark she finds in others serves as the foundation for her process. "It builds out from there," she says. Recalling The Wolfpack, she adds, "I met the [Angulo] boys before I knew what was happening with them. I was hanging out with them for six months before I knew how intense their childhood was. It’s very organic."

Skate Kitchen is also a homegrown project, rooted in the very real-life experiences of its lead actress-slash-skater, Rachelle Vinberg, playing lonely Long Island teen Camille, removed from anything close to resembling friendship while living at home with her mother (played by Elizabeth Rodriguez). Moselle used Vinberg’s young adulthood as the blueprint for her film. 

"That’s her story," Moselle says. "That’s all inspired by her childhood. The whole movie is inspired by her experience coming to New York, and her relationship with her mother. Her mother is Columbian. They had a similar relationship to the film, and when she tells her backstory, that’s also coming from real stories." On paper, that sounds like an intimate and agonizing process to relive, especially as you watch the movie and witness the extremes Camille’s confrontations with her mother go to, but Moselle says Vinberg wouldn’t have had it any other way. "The thing with Rachel is, she was very open and wanted to bring that to the table," she says. "I think that she really just wanted to open up about that stuff."

skate kitchen
Magnolia Pictus

With Vinberg’s upbringing as Skate Kitchen’s impetus, Moselle set out to make a movie about female relationships and isolation in the social media age, where Instagram can either alleviate or exacerbate heartache. "That is the beautiful thing about social media, that you can find like-minded people easier than just searching in the world yourself by foot," says Moselle. "I think sometimes people might think it fills a void, but I don’t think it does. I notice that when I’m really not feeling well, or anxious, or have anxiety or depression, I just flip through Instagram like a robot, almost. I know that it's not healthy. It feels awful."

For Camille, Instagram pays off and turns her remote fascination with the girls of Skate Kitchen into a lasting fellowship. Defying her mother’s wish that she never skate again following an horrific injury Camille sustains in the film’s opening scene (she gets "credit carded," which Vinberg has had happen to her not once but twice; if you’re faint of heart, don’t Google search), Camille determines to meet the crew in person, vibing with compassionate and warm Janay (Ardelia Lovelace) and foul-mouthed, loud-mouthed, fearless Kurt (Nina Moran). Janay and Kurt provide a second home for Camille: They’re the kindred spirits she’s craving from Skate Kitchen's very first scene.

"I think that Camille’s character is in this very lonely place," Moselle muses. "She hasn’t found her tribe yet. She probably felt different than a lot of the girls that went to her school, that lived in her town." Meeting the Skate Kitchen squad fills that hole in Camille’s life, and with all speed the movie becomes a hang out flick, focusing on the girls as they galavant around New York City, work on their skating techniques, beef with boys who claim the best skateboarding spots in the Lower East side for themselves, party, and make generalized philosophical statements about life. They laugh a lot. They have fun. They fall down, get back up, dust themselves off, and try again. They’re also shockingly natural, a credit to Moselle’s familiarity with non-professional actors as well as the girls’ willingness to be vulnerable on camera.

skate kitchen
Magnolia Pictures

"I think sometimes, if they’re open and they’re able to bring performances that are good," she says of her work with non-actors, "then I think that there’s a realism that you can capture with people that aren’t trained that I think is really special and that I like." That’s collaboration was the key detail that led Moselle to make Skate Kitchen as a narrative film instead of another documentary. And there’s something special, for sure, about the way the cast interacts with one another, or with the film’s small coterie of professional actors, á la Jaden Smith, who appears partway through as Camille’s love interest, and as a wedge driven between her and Janay. (Not that he’s unnatural compared to the young women of Skate Kitchen; "Actors can do it too," Moselle adds. "It’s just that not that many of them can do it.")

"It made more sense," she says. "I wanted to collaborate more with the girls, and follow them with the camera forever. That’s just what I felt like doing." You can scarcely blame her. She’s as natural directing non-actors as her non-actors are playing characters -- versions of themselves -- on the big screen.

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Andy Crump is a contributor for Paste magazine, The Playlist, WBUR's The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow him on Twitter @agracru.