Review: HBO’s ‘Betty’ is an exhilarating glimpse inside the world of female skateboarders
Given how much room there is for variety in television, it’s surprising how closely so much of it resembles so much else of it. When something different is successful enough to stick, it will spark imitators and begin to seem like part of that most horrible of all cultural phenomena — a trend. Before too long, whatever felt surprising will begin to feel familiar, and we will go back to mostly not being surprised by TV, great, good, bad or indifferent.
Not everything surprising is good, of course: The phrase “I can’t believe that got made” is more often attached to bad programs than good ones. But when it is good, when a breath of fresh air blows in, I thank the television gods for whatever happy accidents and industrial calculations brought it to fruition.
“Betty,” premiering Friday on HBO, is such a show. A series reboot of Crystal Moselle’s 2018 film “Skate Kitchen,” focusing on a group of young female skateboarders in New York City, it’s very much not what the network saves for Sunday night: expensive star-fronted projects made to create prestige and win Emmys, to take over social media and suck up press coverage for weeks on end.
“Betty” has no stars, no sets. There are a few professional actors on hand, and the main cast have already appeared in the movie, but they are playing versions of themselves in a show built on their experience, and are good enough to make you question whether they are acting at all. Developed for television by Moselle with Lesley Arfin (“Love”), it has a modicum of plot and a fair amount of normal human conflict but it is not dark, darkly comic, violent or fantastic. There is no nudity, that old HBO staple. There are drugs, of the semi-legal sort, but no drug addicts, or even drug problems. Its main themes are friendship, self-knowledge, identity, equality and freedom — which is to say, it’s a show about being young. It feels innocent, which is not to say naive. And it is appropriately, almost casually exhilarating.
The first episode assembles the crew. Kirt (Nina Moran) and Janay (Ardelia “Dede” Lovelace) are on their way separately to a skate park on the Lower East Side — under Manhattan Bridge, it’s a visually dramatic setting — where they have arranged a badly advertised “all-girl skate sesh.” Only one person shows up, Honeybear (Moonbear), who carries a camera, maybe always. Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) skates in with a group of boys; the hunt for her bag, left behind when a sudden rainstorm clears the park, will bring her into their orbit. Searching, they meet Indigo (Ajani Russell), hanging out with Farouk (Reza Nader), “the only nice drug dealer you’re ever going to meet.” Indigo does not yet skate but, under Kirt’s tutelage, soon will.
“Skateboarding is not about learning tricks all the time,” Kirt tells her. “That’s why girls are so intimidated, they think that’s what they need to do. It’s just about having fun, it doesn’t matter how many tricks you have.”
Moselle’s previous film, “The Wolfpack” (2015), about a group of brothers who had grown up confined to their apartment and knew the world mostly through movies, was a documentary, and “Betty,” even when it turns on the slo-mo or turns up the music, has a lifelike flow. It feels improvised much of the time — not as in comedy or theater but humans navigating life as it comes at them, just as they navigate the traffic on crowded city streets. The more obviously plot-driven scenes can feel a little awkward, but awkwardness in this context is not unappealing; it only makes the endeavor feel that much more earnest and authentic.
We get brief glimpses of some characters’ home lives, of a disapproving parent or two, but they are largely beside the point. There are small betrayals, of the sort people make when they can’t think on their feet; there is romance, of a highly tentative sort. There is a night in jail, a #MeToo narrative that tests a friendship, a misadventure in modeling. Money is sometimes a question.
The strength of “Betty” is not in its plotted moments but its more existential ones, evocative of an age when small things can seem terribly important and big things too far off to think about, when time is boundless and space a place to be skated. And New York looks beautiful without being prettified, with its mixed-up mobs of humans, especially fine to see in this global time out — a playground, Eden with graffiti.
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