HBO‘s Betty follows a group of young women — all real-life skaters, who aren’t Actors with a capital “A,” in fictionalized roles — who simply want to skate. Depending on your baseline interest in their culture, you might initially assume that this TV show is not for you. Yet if you take the ride, you’ll be treated to the street-level adventures of effortlessly cool characters, several of whom would literally give you the shirts off their back… to mop up the blood when you inevitably fall and scrape the hell out of your own bod. You’re probably not as hip as they are, but they’d still have your back, quite like they watch out for each other. It’s also a freeing viewing experience that lets you live vicariously as the ladies glide down the street in beautifully shot, authentic sequences.
Betty also does something notable with its title. It reclaims an often pejorative term, used by male skaters, used to describe female hangers-ons at skate parks, who didn’t always, you know, skate. Let me assure you that these ladies skate, and they frequently do so together out of a sense of community, although they might happen to pull off solo board-bound tricks in parks along the way, all in six breezy half-hours of programming.
As a TV show, Betty is very slice-of-life and doesn’t necessarily set out to make any heavy-hitting statements. A few do happen, although they feel organic, and the show feels like an immersive experience for all involved, including the audience. The series is part-continuation/part-spinoff of the 2018 narrative feature film, Skate Kitchen, from director Crystal Moselle (The Wolfpack), once again working within the cinema verité movement with a slightly different structure than the movie. That film brought us the coming-of-age adventures of an inclusive group of friends who spend their free moments in skate parks. Things got a little heavy at times when real-life responsibilities (and people) intruded on the vibe, but Betty manages to cut out a lot of those distractions, even with an increased overall runtime. Much of the cast reprise their roles with their characters experiencing fewer outside stressors to conquer, leading to a series that’s a little lighter, more freewheeling, and pure pleasure to witness.
The plot of Betty also feels fast-and-loose, and mostly there to string together the tight relationships between these characters. They’re largely a collective, yet the end result of their tight-knit group is liberating, in a way that showcases Moselle’s nearly unparalleled ability to harness an authentic view of youth culture. A lot of that, I believe, is down to how she discovers her subjects in a way that feels like fate. Moselle’s been perfectly open about how, prior to making The Wolfpack, she spotted the six Angulo brothers, all dressed like the suited-and-sunglassed characters from Reservoir Dogs, and chased after them down a New York street to investigate their story. That encounter led to a documentary film, but with Skate Kitchen, Moselle’s initial discovery of her stars turned into inspiration to cast them in fictionalized roles. The end result is that we, like Moselle, want to follow them and see what happens next, even if they’re only spending a day tracking down a backpack or getting high or having conversations that give viewers a fly-on-the-wall look at what young women really discuss when guys aren’t around.
As the origin story goes with the Betty ladies, Moselle overheard a conversation between these two (^^^^^^) New York skaters, Nina Moran and Rachelle Vinberg, and she immediately felt compelled to learn more about the pair. She subsequently met their friends from the Skate Kitchen gathering of female skaters, and she got to know their struggles and successes, on and off the board. Moselle simply hung out with them, much like what happens in Betty with plot coming secondary. So, what actually happens takes a back seat to the overarching attraction — like the director, the audience is driven to simply follow these girls in a quest to learn more about them.
Skate Kitchen viewers will notice that the main characters keep their names for the TV series, but some of their personalities are tweaked. They meet and interact with each other in slightly different ways, and their backstories also receive adjustments. For that reason, the stories presented in Betty feel fresh. This happens sort-of in an alternate-universe way but one that still feels comfortable and true to the characters’ spirits. The tweaking of these stories also helps to reinforce how these ladies were meant to find each other and become almost family, all while standing firm in a male-dominated world, in which men do still sometimes consider them outsiders, despite the occasional public display of respect for their tricks and speed skills.
Here’s a quick rundown of the main fab five of Betty (from left to right, above), who all appeared in Skate Kitchen:
– Honeybear (Kabrina “Moonbear” Adams) is an enigmatic documentarian whose story takes her into first-love territory while examining her true self in relation to what her family expects;
– Indigo (Ajani Russell) is the hustler of the bunch, as both a bit of a weed dealer and an aspiring model. She’s inventive when it comes to digging out of scrapes and is fiercely loyal. Unlike with the movie, she’s a novice skater in the TV show;
– Kirt (Nina Moran) is the most mellow, stereotypical stoner type of the bunch, never worrying about anything until someone attempts to do one of her friends dirty. If that happens, watch out, the fists will fly;
– Janay (Dede Loveless) is the vlogger who finds herself tangentially involved in a #MeToo story, one that demonstrates Betty‘s deft handling of a few complex issues in contemplative ways without falling into heavy-handed approaches;
– Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) is the reflective, bespectacled one who expends too much energy in attempting to be taken seriously by the guys. She’s most prone to straying from the girl gang but always knows how to come home;
Together, they’re an unassumingly entertaining crew, whose stories don’t shy away from harsh realities, from which they eventually emerge with glorious results. This is where I want to briefly mention the first scene of Skate Kitchen (available on Hulu) because that’s what the movie, and Betty, all come back to reinforcing. The scene was actually a sobering one and lifted straight from Rachelle Vinberg’s (first) real-life credit-carding trauma. That crude injury’s name refers to what crudely happens when a lady skater takes a spill and lands with the board between her legs. Yes, it’s gruesome, but the scene sent an immediate message: Moselle aimed to present the female skater experience, not only through brutal realities but by later showcasing transcendent moments that make the bruises, scrapes, and stitches seem like badges of honor.
There’s an overriding freedom that these young women claim from the perspective of their boards. They’re well aware of the risks, and their journey is an intoxicating one. Betty is contagious and worth your time to witness.
HBO’s ‘Betty’ debuts on Friday, May 1 at 11:00 pm EST.