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Review: Two exceptional films, 'Skate Kitchen' and 'Minding the Gap,' find poetry and community in motion

Review: Two exceptional films, 'Skate Kitchen' and 'Minding the Gap,' find poetry and community in motion
Rachelle Vinberg, from left, Dede Lovelace and Ajani Russell in the movie "Skate Kitchen." (Magnolia Pictures)

A young person on a skateboard becomes a precious, fleeting image of liberation in Crystal Moselle’s “Skate Kitchen” and Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap.” Both these movies — one a drama, the other a documentary, each superbly shot and richly informed by the grit and agony of real life — premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, and now, by coincidence or design, they are arriving the same Friday on Los Angeles screens.

A more rewarding double bill this weekend would be hard to imagine, provided you don’t mind making the trek between the ArcLight Hollywood and Laemmle’s Monica Film Center. Skating from one theater to another would be appropriate, of course, but is mercifully optional for the less coordinated among us.

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That’s a relief, especially in light of the gruesome fall that kicks off the otherwise exhilarating “Skate Kitchen,” as Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a shy, sensitive 18-year-old from Long Island, tackles a mean little outdoor staircase and winds up shedding blood on the pavement. (If you must know more, you might find a Google search for “skateboarding credit card” informative.)

Camille’s single mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez) urges her never to get on a board again. But her injury is hailed as a rite of passage and a badge of honor by the girls who make up the New York collective Skate Kitchen, whom she begins hanging and rolling with. Flipping, tripping and quickly getting back on their feet comes naturally to these high-spirited young women as they navigate their skate park’s curving slopes, which are invariably crowded with boy skaters. The acrobatics get more daring when the girls take their boards to the streets of Manhattan, where they turn plazas into personal playgrounds and get yelled at by the occasional security guard.

Moselle and her cinematographer, Shabier Kirchner, capture their characters’ moves with a fluidity that toggles between the visceral and the lyrical. Sometimes the vibe is blissfully laid-back; sometimes the camera’s concentration matches the skaters’ own. What Moselle is after is in some ways a longer, more sustained version of what the girls are already doing: With a designated photographer, Ruby (Kabrina Adams), among them, they’re constantly taking pictures and videos of each other and sharing their best moves on social media.

“Skate Kitchen” is Moselle’s first fiction feature, though with its artfully rough edges and its intrinsic feel for group dynamics, it shows much of the same skill that the director brought to her 2015 documentary, “The Wolfpack.” As it happens, Skate Kitchen is a real collective, and Moselle initially toyed with the idea of making a nonfiction work about Vinberg and her friends, until she decided instead to work with them to create their own characters and shape the material into a dramatic narrative.

What has emerged is a touching ode to the rewards and challenges of female friendship, one that becomes particularly poignant when Camille leaves home and begins crashing with the warm, sensitive Janay (Dede Lovelace). The most raucous of the bunch is Kurt (an irrepressible Nina Moran), gleefully thumbing her nose at the male skaters who regard her and her posse with barely veiled contempt. Not everyone is as committed to this battle of the sexes, however, and when Camille finds herself getting close to Devon (Jaden Smith, blending in nicely), one of the park’s male regulars, the specter of rivalry and betrayal threatens to unravel her connection to her new community.

Moselle proves acutely sensitive to Camille’s emotional confusion, as well as her natural introversion. Vinberg, sometimes seeming to hide behind her long hair and translucent-rimmed glasses, makes her character’s discomfort quietly palpable at friendly gatherings whenever the conversation (among other things) turns to sex. We see the human body do some remarkable things in “Skate Kitchen,” but that doesn’t exempt it from the universal indignities and anxieties of early adulthood. Moselle’s movie is an empowering portrait of young women on wheels, but it proves no less surefooted when the wheels come off.

Keire Johnson, from left, Bing Liu and Zack Mulligan from the documentary "Minding the Gap."
Keire Johnson, from left, Bing Liu and Zack Mulligan from the documentary "Minding the Gap." (Hulu)

The extraordinary “Minding the Gap” takes that accomplishment still further. This deeply moving documentary emerged from several years’ worth of skateboard videos that Liu shot of himself and his buddies Zack Mulligan and Keire Johnson, whom he grew up with in Rockford, Ill. (Liu, who won a special jury award at Sundance, is also credited as the film’s cinematographer and co-editor.) But for all the gorgeous virtuosity of the skating footage — one swift Steadicam shot, in which the camera passes through a parking structure and underneath a boom gate, will stay with you for days — the sight of these young men in action feels, by the end, like a gateway into the film’s true subject.

One of Johnson’s skateboards (he breaks a couple) is emblazoned with the words “This device cures heartache,” and amid its montages of boyish banter and play, drinking and roughhousing, “Minding the Gap” sets itself to carefully unpacking the nature of that heartache. Even more intently than “Skate Kitchen,” the movie sifts through the emotional wreckage of estranged parents, broken families and uncertain futures. It also uncovers the personal traumas and cycles of abuse that spurred Liu, Mulligan and Johnson to seek out the refuge and rag-tag family of skating culture.

Although the accumulated footage spans years, we meet the three men as they are taking their first steps into the world of grown-up responsibility. Johnson adjusts to a job he hates, washing dishes and taking out garbage at a restaurant. He’s gentle and reflective, regretting never having reconciled with the strict disciplinarian father who died years ago, but extending love and forgiveness beyond the grave. He ponders the difficulties and rewards of being a black man in America, optimistically noting that it’s “cool because you get a chance to prove people wrong everyday.”

The more gregarious, outspoken Mulligan is also a more complicated study. We meet him not long after the birth of his first child, a responsibility for which he and his girlfriend, Nina, both in their early 20s, seem woefully unprepared. It’s a measure of the trust and intimacy that Liu has fostered with his subjects that so many scenes here show the couple angrily arguing over work hours and child-care duties. But as we learn, not all the blows have been verbal ones, and Liu, to his credit, doesn’t allow his friendship with Mulligan to cloud his judgment. He lets Nina share her experience and revisits her throughout the movie, effectively making her one of his primary subjects.

You come to understand why an account of physical abuse would cut so deeply with Liu, who remains behind the camera for much of the film but steps in front of it at one point to recall the violent beatings he endured at the hands of his late stepfather. Liu even films himself interviewing his mother, whose deep, irreconcilable anguish over what her son went through years ago lends the film its most wrenching moments.

“Minding the Gap” is an essay that never feels like an essay, an intelligent and compassionate grappling with some of the most painful issues presently haunting the body politic: toxic masculinity and domestic violence, economic depression and a deep, existential despair. But Liu doesn’t contrive a simplistic thesis on Middle American misery to suit himself and his friends.

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His engagement with them is principled, considered and powerfully specific, and they emerge from the film not with problems solved, but with their attitudes shaped in a hopeful new direction. By the end, the sight of them skating together isn’t just a beautiful image of friendship and escape. It feels like a metaphor for the difficult, halting but finally unstoppable progression of life itself.

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‘Skate Kitchen’

Rating: R, for drug use and language throughout, strong sexual content and some nudity, all involving teens

Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

Playing: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood

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‘Minding the Gap’

(Not rated)

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Playing: Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, Santa Monica

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