3 skate­board films thrash gen­der norms

‘Mid90s,’ ‘Mind­ing the Gap’ and ‘Skate Kitchen’ all use the sport to ex­plore is­sues such as stereo­typ­ing and toxic mas­culin­ity

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSIC - BY SO­NIA RAO so­nia.rao@wash­post.com

Jonah Hill re­cently joked that he landed on a com­ing-of-age story for his di­rec­to­rial de­but be­cause of the genre’s “tried and true” for­mula. But he man­ages to make it his own: The req­ui­site quest for ac­cep­tance in “Mid90s” deals largely with mas­culin­ity, as the movie fol­lows 13-year-old Ste­vie (Sunny Suljic) as he tries des­per­ately to fit in with a rag­tag group of skate­board­ing teenagers.

Ste­vie’s new friends are slightly older and, while nice to him, spew ho­mo­pho­bic and sex­ist re­marks. His many at­tempts to prove his grit amid this “tough guy” air some­times end poorly — at one point, he tries to jump from one rooftop to an­other but skates right into the gap be­tween them, fall­ing face-first onto a metal ta­ble. Wham!

“Mid90s,” which came out Fri­day, joins Au­gust re­leases “Skate Kitchen” and “Mind­ing the Gap” to form a trio of recent films that chal­lenge gen­der norms against the back­drop of skate­board­ing. The works vary in ap­proach: Hill said on NPR that he is “not here to tell an au­di­ence how they should feel,” whereas the other two are more di­rect. But all three dis­play the harm­ful ef­fects of such norms — or, in the case of “Skate Kitchen,” cel­e­brate their dis­rup­tion — through sto­ries plucked from the same tu­mul­tuous stage of life.

Ado­les­cence is es­pe­cially con­ducive to sto­ries that ex­plore these top­ics, “Skate Kitchen” writer-di­rec­tor Crys­tal Moselle said. It’s when “you’re open­ing your eyes up a lit­tle wider to the world. It’s the first time you re­ally feel de­pres­sion and pain. Things don’t look as bright, and you have to deal with that. But it’s also the trans­for­ma­tion where you’re be­com­ing an adult and you’re feel­ing love for the first time.”

These are far from the first com­ing-of-age skate films, given the path paved by the likes of “Kids” and “Lords of Dog­town.” But “Skate Kitchen” and “Mind­ing the Gap” in par­tic­u­lar are em­blem­atic of the more pro­gres­sive era in which they were made.

“Skate Kitchen” shares its name with the real-life crew that in­spired it. Ac­tresses Rachelle Vin­berg and Nina Mo­ran cu­rated the group af­ter meet­ing on YouTube. Vin­berg came up with the moniker af­ter she read com­ments un­der Lacey Baker videos de­mand­ing that the pro­fes­sional skate­boarder head to the kitchen and make sand­wiches. Moselle said of the all-women crew, “They were us­ing ‘kitchen’ as this ironic way of say­ing, ‘Okay, if we’re sup­posed to be in the kitchen, we’re go­ing to be skate­board­ing in the kitchen.’ ”

This fem­i­nist cur­rent flows through the film, which fol­lows Camille (Vin­berg), a re­served 18year-old who sneaks out of the subur­ban Long Island home she shares with her mother to skate at a Lower East Side park. The girls Camille be­friends are a vi­brant bunch, ea­ger to ac­cept her into their tightknit clan. It was im­por­tant to Moselle that she paint a re­al­is­tic por­trait of fe­male friend­ship, which was easy to do, given that the girls were al­ready friends in real life. Their blunt con­ver­sa­tions, which Moselle work­shopped with the cast, con­cern ev­ery­thing from re­la­tion­ships to men­stru­a­tion.

At one point, Camille and her friend Janay (Dede Lovelace) watch footage of boys per­form­ing edgy tricks. Janay says she feels “like a lot of good skaters just don’t think,” to which Camille re­sponds: “That’s the thing, you can’t think. And us girls, we think too much.”

Al­though a jerk­ish guy (Jaden Smith) from the crew’s wider cir­cle does drive a bit of a wedge be­tween Camille and the oth­ers, “Skate Kitchen” doesn’t be­come a tired story of girls-vs.-boys. The film’s pro­gres­sive qual­ity in­stead lies in its de­pic­tion of women prop­ping one an­other up in a male-dom­i­nated space. It passes the Bechdel test with fly­ing col­ors.

“It’s very in­tim­i­dat­ing when you go to the park. There are so many amaz­ing sup­port­ers in the skate world for women, but then there are also a lot of haters and a lot of con­de­scend­ing” peo­ple, Moselle said, us­ing a more col­or­ful word. “I just wanted it to be about these girls and the en­vi­ron­ment they’re in.”

Un­mask­ing re­al­ity is key to “Mind­ing the Gap,” an in­ti­mate doc­u­men­tary that looks at the lives of di­rec­tor Bing Liu and his friends Zack Mul­li­gan, a roofer, and Keire John­son, a dish­washer. Bing knew Zack from when they were teenagers and got to know Zack’s younger friend Keire af­ter re­con­nect­ing years later. All three Rock­ford, Ill., na­tives bonded over skate­board­ing, which in their youth served as a refuge from tur­bu­lent home lives. They had strained re­la­tion­ships with their fa­ther fig­ures, Bing said, which served as the im­pe­tus for his doc­u­men­tary: How could he and his friends be­come bet­ter men with­out hav­ing had that ex­am­ple?

While Bing ac­knowl­edged in an in­ter­view with The Wash­ing­ton Post that misog­yny per­sists in skate­board­ing cul­ture, he warned against paint­ing it as mono­lithic: “It’s as var­ied as young peo­ple are,” he ex­plained. Even with its hyp­notic im­ages of Zack and Keire rac­ing down the streets, “Mind­ing the Gap” avoids an­a­lyz­ing gen­der dy­nam­ics among skate­board­ers specif­i­cally and in­stead highlights the “un­healthy” form of mas­culin­ity that ex­ists as a symp­tom of our greater cul­ture.

“Your whole life, so­ci­ety tells you, like, ‘Oh, be a man, and you’re strong, and you’re tough, and mar­gar­i­tas are gay,’ ” Zack says early on. “You know, you don’t grow up think­ing that’s the way you are.”

The sub­jects of “Mind­ing the Gap” are slightly older than those in “Mid90s” or “Skate Kitchen,” as Keire had just turned 18 at the start of the film, and Zack, who laments that he and his preg­nant girl­friend “have to fully grow up,” is a few years Keire’s se­nior. Bing, who was 25 at the start, fol­lows his friends as they face adult­hood, an ef­fort sup­ported by archival footage cap­tured over a 12-year pe­riod.

“Mind­ing the Gap” is no­table for its will­ing­ness to de­pict male vul­ner­a­bil­ity. A sec­ond cam­era­man records Bing as he faces his own trauma and in­ter­views his mother about why she stayed with his abu­sive step­fa­ther for as long as she did. Zack finds fa­therly du­ties in­com­pat­i­ble with his volatile na­ture (es­pe­cially ev­i­dent when his girl­friend re­veals that he hit her). Keire grap­ples with lov­ing the fa­ther who abused him.

“One of the hard­est things to do is ex­pe­ri­ence a trau­matic child­hood, be able to own it and make it part of your nar­ra­tive and ac­cept it,” Bing told The Post. “A lot of children have ex­pe­ri­enced abuse, and it’s not val­i­dated for them.”

While Hill, who was un­avail­able for an in­ter­view, doesn’t treat the sit­u­a­tion with as much grav­i­tas, “Mid90s” sim­i­larly po­si­tions skate­board­ing as a re­prieve. Ste­vie has been numbed by fre­quent abuse at the hands of his trou­bled older brother, Ian (Lu­cas Hedges), and, as a re­sult, doesn’t seem to re­al­ize how harm­ful his ef­forts to fit in can be. This leads to a mo­ment of clar­ity when one of Ste­vie’s friends, Ray (Nakel Smith), vis­its him in a hospi­tal af­ter a par­tic­u­larly bad in­jury and says that the 13-year-old takes “the hard­est hits out of any­one I’ve ever seen in my life.”

It seems like praise, but Ray con­tin­ues, “You know you don’t have to do that, right?”



TOP: Na-kel Smith, left, and Olan Pre­natt in Jonah Hill’s di­rec­to­rial de­but, “Mid90s.” ABOVE LEFT: Keire John­son strug­gles with lov­ing the fa­ther who abused him in the doc­u­men­tary “Mind­ing the Gap.” ABOVE RIGHT: “Skate Kitchen” is based on a real-life group of fe­male skate­board­ers.


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