They glide effortlessly down traffic-free NYC streets (it might as well be Idaho), these cool girls on their boards, the sun-dappled summer light just right. Skate Kitchen’s sense of euphoric sisterhood—it comes in humid waves that warm you—may be enough to carry you over some gnarly plot clichés. But if you remember Larry Clark’s downbeat 1995 Kids, a vastly more adventurous movie, you’ll feel a depressing sense of indie sellout.
Director Crystal Moselle is an observer: She found the movie-obsessed shut-in brothers of her 2015 documentary debut, The Wolfpack, mining their real-life story for urban legend. Once again, in her latest, her subjects are actual people, skaters she found on Instagram and befriended.
But imposing a story on them brings out the syrupy worst in Moselle. We follow Camille (Rachelle Vinberg, often a blank behind her glasses, and no discovery like Kids’ Chloë Sevigny), a Long Island teen who yearns to escape her home life with her single mother. Heading into the city, she thrills to the don’t-give-a-fuck urbanity of a group of female daredevils. Just as her new squad goals are taking shape, along come the angry texts from Mom, plus the inevitable boyfriend complications in the form of a soft-spoken coworker Devon (Jaden Smith, more comfortable in the presence of nonprofessionals).
Unlike the skaters—always magnetic when they ollie and rail—Moselle has only one move as a filmmaker: rhapsodic slo-mo and drony guitar rock on the soundtrack. Skate Kitchen is a New York movie that feels ersatz: too timid to dive deeply into economics (to see this done right, try France’s Girlhood), too quick to pin its free spirits to foam board.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf