UK TV review: Betty (HBO)
Ivan Radford | On 09, Jun 2020
Skate Kitchen is a film that’s destined to become a defining cult hit for a generation. A 90-minute hang with a bunch of young women in New York navigating life on their skateboards, it left you wanting to spend several more hours in their company. HBO’s Betty, a six-part spin-off from the movie, is a welcome chance to do just that.
Director Crystal Moselle returns to the streets that she so vividly brought to life in her remarkable feature, and it’s clear from the off that this is more a passion project than it is a commercial move; each 30-minute episode is driven less by narrative and more by character, happily gliding alongside each skater just to enjoy sharing their worldview for a while.
The cast is essentially the same as Skate Kitchen’s core team, who Moselle first met when she made a short film about them. A group of non-professional actors, they clicked with the director so smoothly that she grew that connection into the 2018 feature. Crafting plotlines and scenes out of their autobiographical experiences, the result was closer to documentary than fiction, and that same realism, intimacy and honesty is the beating heart of Betty, with each cast member so comfortable in their roles – and with each other – that it’s impossible not to be immersed in the freewheeling, three-hour ride.
You don’t have to have seen the film to be bowled over, though, as the events here exist independent of the film, with each character given a slightly different arc. Nina Moran’s Kirt is still as chill as it’s possible to be, but fierce when required to spread her love of all-inclusive skating; Janay (Dede Lovelace) is her friend, who has her own problems to deal with after some revelations about fellow YouTuber Donald; Honeybear (Moonbear) has a knack for filming others but is shy when it comes to being seen herself; Indigo (Ajani Russell) is a street-smart skater with more wealth than she likes to let on; and Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), Skate Kitchen’s protagonist, is trying to prove her worth to the boys who dismiss the idea of girl skaters altogether.
Indeed, the title of the show stems from the dismissive slang term they give to female skaters, letting the young women reclaim that nickname for themselves in the face of that defensive, sexist attitude. What’s impressive is the way that Betty explicitly acknowledges this political (with a lower case “p”) struggle, but still plays everything with the lightest of touches; it’s a souffle of social issues facing young people today, thoughtfully considering abuse, sexuality, identity and friendship, but never getting weighed down by any of them.
The script by Moselle and writer Lesley Arfin (Love) is as invisible as the cameras floating through the streets, which sweep us from the curb to the skate park to posh restaurants and family homes with a relaxed vibe. The sun-kissed visuals and the effortlessly cool soundtrack echo that laidback atmosphere, capturing how casual these skaters are, in contrast to skateboarding’s more punky stereotypes. It’s a reminder that there are more ways to be a skater girl than just the Avril Lavigne song, something that’s wonderfully expressed by the girls’ attempts to organise an all-women skate sesh – a chance for skaters of all backgrounds and ages to join together in a celebration of each other. Because this is, underneath it all, an ensemble comedy in the truest sense of the word, giving each person a chance to grow and develop, from Camille learning self-worth to Honeybear opening up to a possible new romance.
The final, beautiful moments centre on one character sharing their skateboard ride with another via their smartphone – a simple act of watching and supporting a friend, and enjoying the chance to appreciate their talent. It’s exactly what watching Betty is like: a cathartic, uplifting moment of shared carefree happiness. This is something special, indeed.