This review is published in partnership with Melbourne International Film Festival’s Critics Campus program.
Searching for idols that represent you is an integral part of the adolescent experience. Posters and images of people we admire line bedrooms walls and fill our lock screens as examples of people we can become. As high school comes to an end, teens are expected to make major decisions about who they are going to become, what the future will hold, what they will do with their lives. This is easier to do when there is someone to look to, to help forge a path. Finding a piece of ourselves in someone else helps develop our identity. It’s that recognition of a common trait or interest which makes us feel less alone: I see you, I recognise myself in you, there are others like me.
When it come to skate films, there’s no shortage of stories out there to reflect your teenage experience — if you’re a boy. Jonah Hill’s recent feature debut Mid90s joins Thrashin’ (1986), Kids (1995), and Lords of Dogtown (2005), to name just a few, in the pantheon of skateboarding films that focus on male adolescence. Much like cars, skateboarding through the years has become signified as a masculine pastime; the most famous skateboarders are male.1 This mobility works well for coming-of-age stories, as most skateboarding narratives revolve around finding a group of friends and self-discovery–of a new skill, a hobby, of a way to work through emotions.
There are few films out there to showcase girls on wheels; girl skaters exist but are rarely seen on screen (not since the brief flash of ’70s rollergirl exploitation flicks like Kansas City Bomber (1972), at least). Drew Barrymore’s Whip It (2009) and Crystal Moselle’s recent Skate Kitchen (2018) fill this on-screen gap by bringing girls to the front: here, at last, are girls who skate that you can relate to, and connect with. Within Whip It’s world of all-girl roller derby and the real-life female skateboarders of Skate Kitchen, girls are shown as cool, tough, and skilled at skating. When their protagonists, Whip It’s Bliss (Elliot Page) and Skate Kitchen’s Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) find their respective teams, they also find themselves.
When we first meet Bliss and Camille, both girls are searching for a new lease on life, a place free of their mothers’ ideals. They meet their (soul) mates in alternative subcultures: Bliss finds her idols in the older women of a Texan roller derby; Camille locates them in a group of New York girls sharing her passion for skateboarding.
In Whip It, Bliss is listless. She works at the gaudy, soul-crushing fast food restaurant Oink Joint with her best friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat), and reluctantly participates in beauty pageants to appease her former beauty queen mother (Marcia Gay Harden). Feeling out of place in this world, roller derby comes into her life like a revelation.
While shopping in Austin with her mother, three roller derby girls skate through the middle of the store — and in the centre of the frame — towards Bliss. Compared to the rigidity of the beauty pageant world, these women are wild, gliding across the screen with a confidence that comes from knowing exactly who they are. Bliss’s lips part. She’s transfixed. “Who are these women and how can I be them?” she conveys, all with one look.
Soon, Bliss secretly tries out and joins the Hurl Scouts. By acquiring a new pair of roller skates, and a roller derby name — Babe Ruthless — Bliss begins to discover who she really is.2 During her roller derby matches, Bliss’ timid demureness morphs into hardened determination and visible confidence, provided by Page’s performance. The camera lingers on her face as she focuses all her attention to the game. The team aren’t very good, but for the Hurl Scouts, there is more to roller derby than winning: they celebrate every game with their signature chant, “We’re number two! We’re number two!” But this all changes with the addition of Bliss, who carves out a place in the team and leads the Hurl Scouts to the championship. Page portrays Bliss with breathless awe and exhilaration during scenes with the Hurl Scouts. The effect is visceral and allows us to also feel carefree. The team’s enthusiasm together is infectious. Surrounded by the constant fist-bumps and cheers of her teammates as they execute point-scoring manoeuvres, Bliss becomes a part of the family.
The off-rink scenes with the Hurl Scouts feel intimate and inviting. Barrymore keeps the camera near her subjects, in medium shots or close-ups. This tight framing, along with the soft, washed-out colour scheme of the film (courtesy of Robert D. Yeoman, Wes Anderson’s right-hand man) contributes to a grounded sense of realism. It’s almost like you’re there among them, too. Here in this team is a found family. Here is where you belong.
Similarly, Moselle’s previous work as a documentarian shines in Skate Kitchen.3 Whether it is tight crops that strengthen an emotional moment or handheld shots lingering at a distance, happy to observe, her camera emulates authentic experience. In this case, literally: the film is a fictionalised story about — and also starring — the real-life all-girl skateboarding group called Skate Kitchen, who Moselle met on a train in New York.
Skate Kitchen member Rachelle Vinberg plays Camille, an 18-year-old girl who lives in Long Island. She spends her time skating alone, or hanging out around the house with her mother, who wants her to quit skateboarding after she suffers a female-specific injury — known as getting “credit carded” — from a trick gone wrong. Camille’s need to skate is so strong, however, that she sneaks out of the house and travels into New York City to meet Skate Kitchen, who she found on Instagram.
Camille is immediately welcomed into the group’s arms. When Skate Kitchen are together, they celebrate each other’s successful tricks, or laugh together when they don’t land. They hang out and talk about tampons and gaslighting, or patiently and encouragingly teach each other skateboarding tricks. These conversations will be familiar to many young women: indeed, it was inspired by a conversation Moselle had overheard the cast having while hanging out one night. Seeing these conversations in a sports film, nonetheless for a typically male sport, embeds women into this space they have previously been denied on screen. The “locker-room” talk between skateboarding bros about sex and girls has been replaced by periods and tampons, boys and girls.
Meeting other girl skaters, who are also such good friends, is life-changing for Camille. Lying on the grass together in Central Park, she reveals that she no longer feels the intense loneliness which used to surround her.
The real beauty of Skate Kitchen is knowing there will be someone there to pick you up when you fall. Janay (Ardelia Lovelace), Camille’s closest confidante in the group, immediately finds her a new board when hers is confiscated and takes Camille in after she has a big fight with her mother. Likewise, when Janay sprains her ankle skateboarding, Camille is the one to cheer her up, and encourages Janay to not lose hope on her ability to skateboard again. Camille transforms from the introverted and shy person who was happy to follow, to a confident and supportive friend, happy to lead.
Skate Kitchen and Whip It demonstrate the liberating power of found families and female friendship, a feeling perfectly embodied in the skating scenes. Skating, whether it be on a skateboard or roller skates, is an incredibly freeing sport, and each film’s most compelling scenes involve the girls in motion. In Skate Kitchen, Moselle’s handheld camera moves alongside the skaters, in close up or from behind, and the effect makes us feel as if we, too, are skating with them. Both films end with a scene like this, too. In Whip It, the Hurl Scouts skate laps around the roller derby rink, waving to the crowd. With a breathless smile on her face, Bliss is front and centre, her teammates behind her. At the end of Skate Kitchen, Camille and a league of other young skaters fly down the Manhattan streets, laughing and in unison; their hair whipping in the wind, their soft smiles set against the city lights and dying sun. Fluidity, unity, love, freedom; in both cases, it feels like home.