Two New Skate Films Are Subverting Gender Norms

The girls of 'Skate Kitchen' and boys of 'Minding the Gap' both get to be brave and vulnerable, cocky and complex.

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Aug 14 2018, 5:24pm

“Camille, go to the bathroom and check it,” sneers a red-teed adolescent.

“It’s not my period,” says the teenaged skateboarder whose stunt leaves blood streaking down her thigh.

The opening exchange of Skate Kitchen, out last Friday as the second feature from Crystal Moselle (of Sundance hit The Wolfpack, a documentary also set in New York’s Lower East Side), captures a paradox at the heart of understanding the film: boys become “men” by making something happen—scoring a goal, getting laid, or committing some act of supposed valor (which often happens to be violent). Girls become “women” by waiting for something to happen to their bodies, something over which they (always) have absolutely zero control.

In Skate Kitchen that doesn’t happen. The blood isn’t a surprise visit from mercurial Mother Nature, but from a battle wound that its protagonist Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) knowingly risks—making her braver than any boy for attempting the feat in the first place. When her overprotective Long Island mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez, in a 180 from her OITNB role) makes her promise to quit skating, Camille treks down the LIRR to join the “Skate Kitchen,” a pack of teenage girls in the LES based on the collective that Vinberg co-founded in real life. The clear connection between the women onscreen—rife with loaded glances and flip non sequiturs—lends a docu-fictional feel that the film unravels slowly and a bit haphazardly, like teenage life itself.

Whether through a hilarious stoner speech about the “Mandela Effect” from ringleader Kurt (Nina Moran) or a brownstone powwow about the merits of tampons, Skate Kitchen lets girls be “girls” while also being unapologetically badass. Caught in the languid, near trippy cinematography of Shabier Kirchner, the crew soars through the streets, into the air, and sometimes fall on their faces—then get back up after a few glad obscenities (“your mother’s a whore!”) and do it again. It’s refreshing in a female coming-of-age film to see bruises and scrapes not as signs of abuse but as just another part of being a skater, accents to piercings and button pins, a kind of mundane toughness of which women have always been capable.

Opening a week later, another skater movie, Minding the Gap, exposes how the gendered mandate of toughness can prove hazardous to those roving the concrete jungle of early manhood. One of Variety’s Ten Documentarians to Watch, first time filmmaker Bing Liu orbits the lives of three skateboarding boys in Rockford, Illinois, and their intersecting histories of economic struggle, domestic strife, and reckless partying. Reflecting on their decade-long bond with candor and sensitivity, the three friends—Keire, Zack, and Bing—confront the death of a parent, an abusive stepdad, the pressure to loan money to a family in need, and the trials of unplanned fatherhood. If 2005’s Lords of Dogtown was a “monument to teen boy bravado,” then Minding the Gap reveals the psychological damage wrought by young men feigning constant confidence within a system that leaves them no space to be vulnerable—even if, due to racial or socioeconomic circumstances, they are among the most vulnerable in the country.

“Your whole life society tells you, ‘Be a man, be strong, be tough…margaritas are gay!’” narrates Zack at the beginning of the film. “You don’t grow up thinking that’s the way you are. When you’re a kid, you just do, just act, but somewhere along the line, everyone loses that.” Liu plays confidante behind the lens to latently question the toxic effects of masculine norms within the working-class Midwest, not only on the women repeatedly hurt but on the young men trapped by feelings of helplessness while trying to avoid becoming their own fathers.

“Skateboarding is more of a family than my family,” says Keire, the youngest of the group, who ultimately escapes the grind of minimum wage labor for opportunities out west. When not documenting stunts and sudden face plants, more tears are shed by these men than by anyone in Moselle’s film—skateboarding a means to develop the bonds that create a safe space for empathy and introspection. The trio’s apparent fearlessness is a flashy foil for anxieties about pretty much every other part of life, the illusion that nothing matters a method of survival.

Skate Kitchen shows just how convincing, and confusing, this illusion can be to observant young women. “Once boys hit puberty, they just get really good,” Camille laments to Janay, watching footage of boys doing tricks around town. “That’s the thing, you can’t think. Us girls, we think too much.” For Camille, this sense of invincibility—rational or not—remains curiously enviable, ennobling the boys her age to go for it when her own girl squad would not. Galvanized by the image of a stunt in a park, she convinces her Kitchen comrades to try it themselves. It’s exhilarating watching each make it over the flight of stairs, till the last (Janay, not incidentally the one initially hesitant) lands sprawled on the asphalt, spraining her ankle. Was she “thinking too much” or wisely prudent? Were the other girls better skaters, or just lucky in the moment? The scene suggests any reason as equally possible, resisting tidy explanations or vapid paternalism.

Like the Rockford boys in Minding the Gap, Moselle’s LES girls get to be brave and vulnerable, cocky and complex. And unlike the “girls can do anything” platitudes that plaster lunch boxes and Target tank tops, the film suggests that teenage women—like all women—can, and should, try to do anything. But it’s also frank about the fact that our heroines face distinctly gendered perils—whether it be “credit-carding,” the specific physical injury Camille suffers in the opening scene, or the chance of predatory behavior from their sexual interests.

But Moselle also seems to suggest that the risks are worth the freedom this new generation of women enjoy—whether it be getting high or taking on multiple lovers (“We don’t have a thing,” skater Indigo scoffs about a dude she’s hanging with. “I just like how he gives me head”). There’s also something to be said for the latitude given to teenage girls to simply be a public nuisance, when that freedom has disproportionately been granted to boys. Moselle’s lens not only permits the Kitchen’s recipe for who-gives-a-fuck, but revels in it—from the girls skating off with a UPS cart, to hitching a ride on the back of a dump truck, to speeding into pedestrians enjoying a leisurely stroll.

“Always ignoring the No Trespassing Signs,” laughs Keire as he and his friends scale the fire escapes of a vacant building. “I didn’t know we weren’t allowed to skate here,” lies Camille to an angry security guard before pulling a stunt when he turns his head. Both Minding the Gap and Skate Kitchen heartily endorse the idea that to bend or outright break the rules is the birthright of every teenager—and that skateboarding might be the most liberating, and innocuous, outlet for doing so. Flying through empty Rust Belt streets or weaving by dawn-lit Manhattan traffic, each skater troop appears united in the same goal—less mind over matter than motion over matter, and, better yet, motion over mind. Such is the allure, the real bravado, of skaters of any gender.

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