Crystal Moselle on lyrical teen drama Skate Kitchen

The Wolfpack director Crystal Moselle discusses her follow-up Skate Kitchen, a dreamy tale following a gang of achingly cool girl skaters. We speak to Moselle about the film ahead of its Scottish premiere at Glasgow Youth Film Festival

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 14 Aug 2018

You’d be hard-pressed to pigeonhole Crystal Moselle. The filmmaker made waves back in 2015 with her award-winning debut The Wolfpack, a documentary about six movie-obsessed brothers who'd spent the majority of their young lives isolated from the outside world in their parents’ 16th-floor apartment in Manhattan's Lower East Side. Her follow-up feature, Skate Kitchen, has superficial similarities – it’s also about a group of New York teens with a passion and who move in a pack – but in many ways, it couldn’t be more different.

Where The Wolfpack concerned sheltered boys who had barely left their cramped apartment despite living in the greatest city in the world, Skate Kitchen’s focus is a gang of kickass young women who rule the New York streets on their skateboards. Like with her Wolfpack subjects, Moselle discovered the skate collective – who go by the name Skate Kitchen – when they caught her eye while she was running some errands around her hometown.

“I met them on the train and they had skateboards in their hands,” she recalls of her first impression of Skate Kitchen, “which you don’t see that often with women. We just started talking and I asked them if they'd be willing to do a film project and they were into it, so we stayed in touch.”

Initially, Moselle had in mind another documentary, but when Italian fashion label Miu Miu approached her to make a short fiction film featuring their clothes, she thought instantly of the striking, super-stylish girls she met on the train. That short film became That One Day. While fictional, the script and story was workshopped with the collective and very much mines the girls’ lives for details. “They were just incredibly open,” Moselle says of her greenhorn cast. “They shared everything.”

She was impressed with their performances but less certain about the overall quality of her first foray into fiction filmmaking. “When that film was finished and came out, I couldn’t even tell if it was good or not,” she admits. “But Kim Yutani from Sundance watched it and she was like, ‘You need to actually make the feature version.’ So that gave me enough confidence to go on and make the feature.” That One Day made its debut at Venice Film Festival in 2016; Skate Kitchen premiered at Sundance earlier this year.

We’re eternally grateful that Yutani gave Moselle a pep talk because the resulting film is a vibrant joy. The focus of both the short and the feature is Rachelle Vinberg’s Camille, a talented thrasher who appears to be the lone female skater at her local park in suburban Long Island, which is overrun by sniggering adolescent boys. When she discovers the Instagram feed belonging to the eponymous all-girl crew, she jumps on a train to the city and tracks them down.

Moselle’s curious, watchful camera gracefully moves with the pack and captures this subculture in a manner that’s both gritty and lyrical, often slowing the image down to catch each ollie and flip. The film is just as compelling away from the skatepark. Some of the most memorable scenes involve the girls lounging around one of the crew’s bedrooms while they smoke pot and air their myriad concerns as a group. There are the usual discussions of boys and trouble with the ‘rents, but these young women are also concerned with topics you won’t hear in your average teen movie: period woes, stories of date rape and a rare accident dubbed “credit carding” that should have every female member of the audience wincing.

It's abundantly clear from the film that Moselle enjoys the company of these young women. “I just love sitting in a room and listening to them talk,” she says, “they’re so funny and their conversations are amazing. That’s just the realism of girls and I wanted to show it completely candidly, not with a male gaze, not with the perception of what people expect girls to talk about, but really be honest of what girls are together – they’re companions and they have each other’s back.”

While the skaters have their problems, nothing calamitous happens to them during Skate Kitchen’s hazy hangout narrative. It’s easy to imagine a less sophisticated film sprinkling the story with tragedy or melodrama, but Moselle resists such temptations at every turn. Moselle’s defence for Skate Kitchen’s low-key dramatic thrust is watertight: “It’s based on these girls’ own lives and they’re OK, and most kids are,” she says. “They go through these moments of doubt and pain, but then they get through it and come out the other side and learn from it, and that’s just a part of being a kid – or an adult.”

It’s this fidelity to the everyday lives that these young skaters that makes Skate Kitchen sing. “I’m obsessed with the idea of creating things in a way that feels completely real, where the camera is discovering things rather than it’s been set up,” Moselle says of her approach. So dedicated is she to realism that she tries to keep her directions to a minimum. “I have a hard time even leading characters because it feels like set-up to me,” she explains. “I like to follow.” That might sound impossible in a narrative film, but despite having written the script she describes every moment on set as "feeling like a constant discovery. I need to find these little intimate moments that you can’t anticipate.”

As well as being a fine film about female friendship, Skate Kitchen should also be added to the ever-growing list of great New York movies. Moselle’s ambition for capturing her hometown was to “just show a different perspective of what New York City can be,” she tells us. “I think there’s a lot of talk, this feeling that New York City is dead, and I just don’t believe it.”

This chatter talking down the Big Apple tends to be from Baby Boomers or Gen Xers nostalgic for the days when they were the ones running Downtown. Moselle, however, has faith in Gen Y. “I just feel like there’s this whole new generation who are breathing life into the city. For me, when I hung out with these girls, I was like, ‘Wow, this is a side to New York I have never seen and it’s so cool.’ It’s so refreshing that the youth always take it into their own hands and they show you a side of the city that still breathes.” What’s so exciting about this skating subculture’s attitude to the city, she says, is that they treat it like a painter would treat their canvas: “They look at it as a piece of art that they can interact with, which I thought was very cool.”

Moselle clearly has a deep connection to her protagonists, but it’s tempting to see Skate Kitchen as a personal film in other ways too. For instance, it’s a film about a young woman fighting for the opportunity to express herself in a macho arena. Did Moselle find any parallels with her own career in a male-dominated industry that’s still dogged by underlying sexism?

“In theory, yes it’s similar, but in action it’s different,” says Moselle. “I’m in a male-dominated field but with these girls, having to actually walk into that skatepark and be around this other world, it’s tough. With them, when they first start going to these parks, it’s very intimidating and it’s just something they had to get used to. It’s not like the boys have a problem with them, really, it’s just the attention they get from being there, all eyes are on you. I think it’s different for me as a director because I’m doing my own thing. It’s like when I walk on set, that’s my set and nobody's going to fuck with me.”

We don't doubt it. Moselle is as cool and badass as her young cast.

Skate Kitchen screens 15 Sep, GFT, as part of Glasgow Youth Film Festival, and is released 28 Sep by Modern Film