These new skateboarding movies challenge gender stereotypes in surprising ways
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" 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, 'OK, 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 18-year-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-versus-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, Illinois, 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 (Na-kel 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?"