In two wondrous movies opening this weekend, teen girls amble through separate corners of New York City, desperate for a sense of belonging. There’s Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) at the center of “Skate Kitchen,” who befriends a skateboarding collective in a Lower East Side park, ignoring the mandates issued by her worried single mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez). Elsewhere, there’s Madeline (Helena Howard), the moody antihero of “Madeline’s Madeline,” who taps into primal emotions upon joining a brownstone theater troupe that her worried mother (Miranda July) finds suspicious.
These films, each extolled at Sundance earlier this year, share other similarities. Both are directed by women with proven indie clout. “Skate Kitchen” comes from Crystal Moselle, who stoked curiosity with her 2015 documentary “The Wolfpack.” “Madeline’s Madeline” is the work of Josephine Decker, an experimental genre-bender whose previous feature was the microbudget thriller “Thou Wast Mild and Lonely.” Moselle and Decker, purveyors of dreamlike aesthetics, both had chance encounters that led them to this moment ― and, for our sake, thank goodness they did.
Moselle was riding the subway in Brooklyn one day when she overheard a pack of girls gabbing about tampons. Lured by their charisma, Moselle discovered that they had formed a skateboarding outfit called the Skate Kitchen ― a refuge for outdoorsy adolescents of varying races and sexual identities. She thought to turn their story into a documentary, until a Sundance programmer suggested something more eclectic: a fictional film that stars the real girls and borrows from their real personas.
The resulting collaboration was so “sisterly,” Moselle said, that the principal cast has now spent the better part of two years “basically” living at her house. “The Skate Kitchen are building something, and I’ve been a big part of that process with them,” she said. “I think I kind of guide them along the way. … I take them around, we go out together. It’s a very cool, unique friendship with these girls.”
“Skate Kitchen” revolves around an outsider who finds community among the shredders she watches on her Instagram feed. It’s “Kids” without the grit and disease. The girls’ chemistry on screen is so natural that it sometimes borders on vérité, even though Moselle, who generally shies away from working with professional actors, said the film is thoroughly scripted. She and the young performers took improv workshops to cultivate the story, a tactic also integral to “Madeline’s Madeline.” That effort infuses “Skate Kitchen” with a lovely, evocative sense of discovery, as if we were cruising down the sun-splattered Manhattan streets alongside Camille and her new pals.
But as much as “Skate Kitchen” focuses on New York, its essence is more catholic. “Youth culture is universal,” Moselle said in a reflection that can also be applied to “Lady Bird” and “Eighth Grade,” two other exemplary movies about teenage girls released in the past year.
As for Decker, her chance encounter occurred while judging a teen arts festival in New Jersey. In walked Howard, a young thespian who performed a monologue from “Blackbird,” David Harrower’s gutting play about a woman addressing the man who had sexually abused her at age 12. Decker was so moved by Howard that she rushed out of the room afterward to insist they someday work together.
Around that time, Decker was seeking to make a movie about the nature of acting, specifically what it means to adopt identities other than your own. She’d been workshopping ideas with an improv group, but she didn’t land on a central conceit until meeting Howard. Channeling the otherworldly enchantments of “Alice in Wonderland” and Maurice Sendak’s “Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life,” combined with the surreal trance of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” Decker concocted a hypnotic portrait of a troubled adolescent who steps into an alternate mindset under the tutelage of an exploitative theater teacher (Molly Parker).
“Madeline’s Madeline” plays like a psychological thriller about emotional camouflage, domestic turbulence and possible mental illness. “Being alive is a problem of being insane, and then you are constantly trying to solve that problem,” Decker said. “You either let yourself enjoy the parts of you that are wild and outrageous, or you suppress them, and that’s not great. … I don’t think I’m easily quote-unquote shaken, but the irony is that it’s all very much masking a deeper sense that I might just lose it at any second. I really appreciate making work about people who feel like they do lose it.”
The two movies, open in limited release and expanding to additional theaters throughout August and September, have different relationships with the famous faces who take a back seat to their rookie co-stars. Jaden Smith enters “Skate Kitchen” around the halfway mark, specifically because he had struck up a friendship with Vinberg after reaching out to her on Instagram. Moselle said she had no mandate to cast celebrities.
With “Madeline’s Madeline,” on the other hand, producers pushed Decker to find a few folks with a degree of commercial appeal. That led her to July and Parker (of “House of Cards” and “Deadwood” fame), two veterans who have worked almost exclusively in independent film, edgy theater and prestige television.
Moselle and Decker, both in their late 30s, said they knew they wouldn’t budge on their lead actresses, though ― and thankfully no one asked them to. Howard is a feral force as Madeline, and Vinberg brings a quiet ease to Camille, letting herself be upstaged by the rowdy extroverts populating “Skate Kitchen.” But the real stars of both movies are the hazy visuals that cast a spell over these feature-length hallucinations. “Skate Kitchen” and “Madeline’s Madeline” end very differently, but they are woven together with the same gauzy search for meaning that every stripling experiences.
“It’s a turning point we all relate to, when identity meets reality,” Decker said. “Your sense of self is in flux enough that then your identity suddenly feels projected upon by society, as opposed to coming out of you. And then you have to make these difficult choices about ‘What is my identity?’ and ‘Who is me?’ I think that’s a thing that all of us grapple with at all phases of our life, but we all felt it very deeply as a teenager.”