The first narrative feature film by documentarian Crystal Moselle (The Wolf Pack, 2015) opens with a black screen and the sounds of the city: A train rattles and screeches by, people shout, children play, and a skateboard hits the pavement. Even before we see the film’s protagonist perform her first onscreen skateboard trick, the feeling is already somehow both electric and familiar, much like the story that follows. The film tracks its young heroine as she joins an all-girl skate crew in New York City. (In a move that blurs the line between documentary and narrative film, the fictional crew is made up of members of the real-life crew known as Skate Kitchen.) All the usual elements of outsider stories, sports movies, and teen dramas abound: A young upstart joins a team of mavericks, tests her skills against those of her teammates and those of her opponents, and clashes with members of both as she grows and finds out more about herself. But this film invests the familiar sports-movie and coming-of-age-drama tropes with a raw energy, honesty, frank physicality, and genuine feeling that elevate it from a mere genre film into something precise and visceral.
As the film begins, a pensive, uncertain skater tentatively tests out a stunt, and we hear the voices of onlookers as they yell their encouragement: “Go for it!” “Just do it!” The skater, Camille, then goes for it—and wipes out spectacularly. The close-up camerawork and crystalline sound bring us directly into the accident as she lands wrong, clutches the injury site, and swears in pain. From this moment and throughout the film, the dynamic cinematography, vibrant sound design, and crisp editing of Moselle’s highly skilled collaborators bring the action and its risks thrillingly, uncomfortably close to us. Camille rises, covered with an impressive amount of blood, and limps away from the skate park. Two boys who have been watching her skate mistake the blood for her period and shout, “Camille! Go to the bathroom and check it!” When she retorts, “It’s not my period, okay?” one murmurs to the other, “You think she’s okay?” The next shot takes us into the ER as the doctor stitches up her groin injury, asking “You still okay?” while Camille winces in pain. Being okay and not okay are the two poles between which Camille and her friends oscillate for the duration of the film as they endure wipe-outs, the cluelessness of boys, their own growing pains, and the various traumas and confusions of living in a female body, about which the film is unflinchingly and refreshingly direct. (This is probably the first film ever made in which a character has to work out how to use a tampon with an applicator.)
After the wipe-out, Camille’s mother, the excellent Elizabeth Rodriguez (Orange Is the New Black), forbids Camille to skate again, providing the central dramatic tension of the film as Camille asserts her independence and fights for the main thing that gives her a sense of freedom and happiness. Camille must find ways to do what she loves, undetected by her mother, with whom she has a fraught, tense relationship. That relationship endures its share of bruises as the story progresses. This narrative formula could have been cliché and formulaic but for the deft performances of the actors and the sharp eye of the director, who catches the nuances of her protagonist’s emotional needs astutely.
Much of the joy of this film comes from its young characters’ camaraderie. The same day Camille first shows the Skate Kitchen crew what she can do, they embrace her with a low-key naturalness. They admire her successes, laugh at her failures with her, brush off minor injuries. They swarm around her to protect her from intrusive skater boys so she can skate safely and have fun. At one point, one of the crew tries to hug her, and Camille freezes. Her new friend asks, “You don’t really hug, do you?” Camille doesn’t. At first somewhat introverted and guarded, she only gradually warms to the others and begins to trust them. When a conflict threatens to rupture that mutual trust, we feel the full weight of how much they depend upon one another, and in a mostly-male world that is often hostile to their presence, the stakes feel very high indeed. Importantly, the male characters aren’t villainized; they’re often simply unconscious of the impact of their attitudes and actions on the girls around them. This unconsciousness invests the film with a sense of the ordinariness of threat in the world in which all girls must make their way—but especially these girls, whom the boys often see as interlopers, aliens, or hangers-on who are at first assumed to be unable to “keep up.”
Many girls love horses because they make them feel tall, strong, and free. In a similar way, these girls visibly love to skate because of the speed, the daring, the freedom, the rush of wind in their hair, and—significantly—the friendship. Shots of Camille alone, gliding along, arms outstretched, hair blowing behind her, are poetic enough, but the scenes that really soar are the ones in which she skates with her new friends, sometimes slightly illegally, always with palpable joy, in defiance together of all the forces that oppose them.
This film and its brave, vulnerable protagonist are deeply affecting. Early in the film, Camille tells her new friends, “For a while, I was feeling really lonely. It’s like that loneliness you have, even when you’re in a crowded room with people laughing and smiling . . . the emptiness of that, I was feeling for so long. But um, I don’t feel that anymore.” As she blissfully skates on her own through a leafy park, alone but not lonely, we know that it’s true, and we hope that it lasts.