Crystal Moselle captures the freedom of skating, dancing, just living as a young woman trying to figure out her place in the world, like nobody else. With her feature Skate Kitchen and spinoff series Betty she pens a love letter to these communities, and reminds us of what that carefree, but still crucial and formative, period of life means. Anahit Behrooz meets the filmmaker to find out more.
What is your one abiding memory of the 2020 lockdown? The single moment that crystallises that strange, stultified springtime, when we all sat in our houses and waited quietly for the world to end? For me, it is a crowd of women skateboarding over a bridge and down a city street. One holds her friend’s hand, pulling her forward. Another falls and immediately rolls over to get back up. Another reaches her arms out gently, as if to grasp the soft summer air. They swoop through the streets in tie-dye and crop tops and large silken shirts, the sun a soft glare and the city a looming, dusty mass around them. They look utterly, unspeakably free.
That type of freedom, of course, barely existed in the world at the time. Instead, it unfolded on HBO’s Betty, a scrappy six-episode TV show created by Californian filmmaker Crystal Moselle and based on her 2018 feature Skate Kitchen (in turn based on her 2016 short film of the same name). Following a group of skater girls – nonprofessional actors who Moselle met at a skatepark – Betty was the perfect foil to the surreal claustrophobia of the pandemic, a loosely scripted show about finding community amidst the chaos of urban life, about the glorious possibilities contained in a warm summer day and doing something you love wildly.
It is, in many ways, a hang-out show, and what plot there is takes a backseat to Moselle’s organic, intimate crafting of her characters, fostered through a deftly loose script and a uniquely collaborative approach (the girls, as Moselle tells me, are also consultants on the show). Where Skate Kitchen followed somewhat of a traditional three-act structure, Betty resists such constraints: the entire first episode of season one is about recuperating a stolen backpack, while several drug trips throughout the show take the audience on a spacey, drawn-out journey to nowhere.
Yet Moselle’s fluid, incidental approach is what makes Betty what it is. Rarely has there been a snapshot of youth more evocative or more yearning than that of this show’s ensemble cast – Janay, a fiercely loyal pragmatist; Kirt, a charismatic and belligerent stoner; Camille, a not-like-the-other-girls naïf; Honeybear, a shy filmmaker wrestling with her sexuality; Indigo, a tough newbie from the right side of the tracks – coming of age together in the sharp bustle of New York City in 2020. The broader world does not merely contextualise Betty, it permeates it; Moselle’s characteristic documentary lens – used to startling effect in her directorial debut documentary The Wolfpack (2015) – carving out space for personal stories found on the edge of big news cycles.
In the first season, Janay is forced to contend with her best friend suddenly being accused of sexual assault. In the second season, released this summer, the pandemic is in full force, masks looped around ears and the aftershock of the American policing system felt throughout the city. The last year and a half – glimpsed in the form of headlines and TikTok trends through the gossamer walls of our bubbles – is brought headily to life. And in the middle of it all, the girls hold out their arms and skate: an intoxicating portrait of urban freedom in spite of limitation.
Girls on Tops sat down to talk with Moselle about her blurring of documentary and fiction, the fast-changing world of skateboarding, and the gorgeous potential of community.
Girls on Tops: I want to start by asking about the shift from film to television: what was it about this format that felt right for continuing the Skate Kitchen story?
Crystal Moselle: As with everything in my life, it just sort of happened. I never planned to make this into a TV show but Amy Gravitt at HBO saw the movie and loved it and felt like there were more stories to pursue. And for me, I know there's endless stories to tell here so I felt the same.
Both the film and the TV show have a very specific documentary sensibility to them. What is it about this approach that draws you in?
I’m drawn to realism and trying to create moments that feel like you're experiencing them for the first time. The way my camera moves – I always want it to feel like a discovery, as if this moment has never happened before and you’re there with the characters rather than stood back watching. The girls are consultants on the show, so they are always putting their sensibility into it too. I wanted it to feel not like a TV version of their world but like the world itself.
As a show about a girl skate gang, you have very rich and varied depictions of how gender power dynamics play out. In the second season, Indigo delves into sex work, but you also have moments where the boys are taking over the skate park, for example. How did you want to approach this idea of gender and power?
The first season, as well as the movie and the short, were all about showing what it's like for a girl to enter the skate scene, and the intimidation that can exist there. When I first met the girls, they were the only ones who skated – now there's like a million girls that skate, it's a totally different world. I really felt that for season two, though, it was time to show some boys and men inspired by some of the people in the girls’ lives and show them in a new light.
I don't like this idea that boys are bad and girls are good, I feel there are different shades to who we all are. There are some really amazing guys in the skating scene: with Sylvester [Janay’s new love interest in season 2] for example, I liked that maybe your assumption is he's not a good guy but when it comes down to it, he has a good heart. He might be a little much at times but, you know, who isn't?
You mentioned that there are more girls now within the skate scene – what are other ways that you've seen the culture change in the five years since you made the short?
There's so many more girls, it's insane. Whenever I walk down a street in any country I see a girl skateboarding. I'm in Barcelona right now making a commercial, and two girls brought skateboards to their casting. It sounds obvious but I think there's this idea now that women can do things that they thought they couldn't do before. There's also a different sensibility to skateboarding these days. There was a real competitive vibe that was happening for a while, but now there's a new version of it, this idea – fuelled partly by Instagram – that it's almost like a dance or a performance. And rather than being the best, it becomes about, ‘Look at the dance I'm doing’.
A lot has happened in the world between the two seasons, and season 2 is very explicit about that: you touch on everything from the pandemic to Black Lives Matter and policing. What is your creative relationship with politics?
I always like to take a unique perspective. Like, what if it was your friend who got #MeToo-ed? What does that mean to you? The obvious thing these days is to show a #MeToo story but what if something were to make it a bit more difficult?
I don't think I have an overarching approach because, like most humans, I’m constantly changing my perspective and getting inspired by new things. The world of making film is very beautiful because you can reach people with messages on a level that you can't with a lot of other mediums, and I really feel grateful that I can do that. But it's also totally frightening and hard and stressful! One thing that is really cool these days is people are able to step forward and be like, ‘I'm not doing well right now, I need to step back for a second.’ Before, that wasn't possible: if you were anxious or panicky, it was like you were unfit to do something. And I think nowadays there's more room to not be okay.
You talked about how the first season was all about bringing these women into the world of skateboarding, and this second one is about trying to find a physical space they can be in. Why is this theme of community so central to your narratives?
I mean, skateboarding is a community. We travelled a lot for the film and the show and whenever we [got somewhere new] the girls would always go, ‘Hey, where’s the skate spot?’, and they’d go there and that’s where they would find their friends. The cool thing about skating is that it’s a sport but it’s also a subculture. It doesn’t have to be competitive unless you want it to be.
There’s a whole community of women skateboarders now and the thing about them is they are always like, ‘We’re going to instantly accept you.’ Whatever pronoun you use, whether you’re gender non-conforming or lesbian or gay or whatever, they're 100 accepting of everybody. It's an immediate thing: people know that they can join and they won't be judged and they won't be treated badly on a group level. Skateboarding has always been on the fringe: it was for the misfits and people on the outskirts who don’t want to be part of mainstream society. And now it’s inclusive of people who feel a certain way inside that they felt before they couldn’t express.
Anahit Behrooz is an arts journalist based in Edinburgh. She currently works as events editor at The Skinny, with words in Little White Lies, The Quietus, MAP Magazine, Girls on Tops and others. She likes beautiful films about women, old bookshops, and Dan Levy’s eyebrows.