It was around 2016 when Crystal Mossel, the director of the hit documentary The Wolfpack, first had the idea of chronicling the real-life story of a group of female skateboarders in New York — just right after she accidentally met two members of that skate collective, Nina Moran and Rachelle Vinberg, on the G train in Brooklyn. Two years after that meeting, Mossel’s pseudo-documentary Skate Kitchen was born, and much to her surprise, it made waves immediately when it premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Not long after that, HBO approaches Mossel to make the spinoff television series based on the movie, which later becomes one of the best new shows of the year, Betty.
Though it shares the same artistic style, characters, and actors as the movie, and the main plot still also focuses on a group of female skateboarders trying to make it in a male-dominated world, Mossel decides to tweak the story a little and gives the supporting characters more depth, which eventually allows the show to deal with more compelling subjects such as class and race relations. The result, though far from flawless, is a wonderful, breezy show about female friendship, buoyed by Mossel’s signature direction and an authentic script from her writers.
Meet the Bettys
The real power of Betty, however, lies in the characters and the non-actors who play them, not in the season’s overarching narrative. When we first meet them, these girls still haven’t found each other. In fact, only two of them, Kirt (Moran) and Janay (Dede Lovelace), that have been already friend before the show begins. The first episode sees Kirt and Janay wanting to create an all-girl skate sesh at the skatepark, but Kirt screws up when she forgets to advertise it on her Instagram. So aside from Honeybear (Kabrina “Moonbear” Adams), a shy aspiring filmmaker from Staten Island, no one comes to the event.
But later on the same park, the trio meets Camille (Vinberg), a female skater who only hangs and skates with guys, before joined by Indigo (Ajani Russell), a weed dealer who hides her true upper west side background from her street friends, when an unexpected thunderstorm forces all the skaters to leave the park — some to the bodega, and some more to the back of a van owned by Indigo’s weed-dealing friend Farouk (Reza Nader). But what really forms the bond between them isn’t just the rain or a puff of pot, it’s also a hilarious and tragic turn of events involving Camille and Janay trying to find a missing backpack using Find My iPhone app.
From there, we’re invited to follow these girls as they’re dealing with communal and personal challenges, both as skaters and human beings. But just like its movie predecessor Skate Kitchen, Betty isn’t structured around dramatic moments. What unfolds in each episode is just an observation of how these characters living their everyday lives, which could be risky if Mossel’s approach fails to maintain the charms of the premise. But thankfully, Betty remains captivating until the final episode, thanks to the easy chemistry between the actors who each also delivers phenomenal performance every episode.
Moran, in particular, is a standout. Her performance is always engaging, with impeccable comedic timing and a fascinating display of chillness. Anytime she’s on-screen, there’s this energy that radiates warmth and positivity. And it makes you wanna live in a world where Betty takes place. That Moran and the majority of the cast are newcomers actors with little acting experience only makes Betty all the more impressive. Trust me, you just wanna hang with them even if you know nothing about skateboarding.
The Power of Community
While the big part of Betty is about how these girls bond over skateboarding, throughout six episodes, Mossel also manages to tackle some serious topics without making it such a big deal. Through Honeybear’s relationship with another female skater Ash (Katerina Tannenbaum), Betty gives us a poignant portrait about the anxiety of first love. There’s also a brief but relevant depiction of white privilege from the episode featuring a police arrest. Class and racial commercialization are also explored through Indigo’s journey of collecting money to pay off her debt.
But the subjects that Betty handles confidently more than the rest are the ones that are related to the #MeToo movement and toxic relationship, respectively from Janay and Camille’s individual arcs. For the majority of the season, Camille spends most of her time hanging out and skating with guys instead of with the other female skaters. But the reason is not that she thinks that Kirt and her friends are bad in skateboarding. It’s simply because she wants to be taken seriously as a skater by the male group. Among one of the guys, Camille desperately wants to impress is Bambi (Edmund Donovan).
When the show first introduces him, Bambi seems like a really nice guy. He respects Camille and wants her to appear on one of his skating videos. And Camille is captivated by his presence almost immediately. But it’s later revealed that Bambi is not as nice as he appears to be, especially when Camille needs him the most. In the season’s best episode “Perstephanie”, we see the sudden change in Bambi after Janay and Indigo mocks him for not helping Camille, which made even more jarring with him gaslighting Camille toward the end of the episode. From Camille’s arc, Betty reminds us that not every relationship is worth saving even if breaking away from it would end up with you getting hurt. But as illustrated by Vinberg’s display of emotions, once you’re able to distance yourself from it, what comes after is pretty freeing.
Janay’s arc is more emotional as it deals with a timely issue of sexual assault allegations involving her YouTube channel co-host Donald (Caleb Eberhardt), who also happens to be her ex-boyfriend. When Janay first hears about this problem, she refuses to believe the girl who accuses Donald. So in an attempt to find out the truth, she goes to meet this girl and decides to listen to her openly. And it’s after this moment that she begins to realize how Donald did the same thing to her back when they were still dating. Her journey of coming to terms with this issue is depicted deliberately, and Lovelace’s performance perfectly demonstrates all the steps — from denial and anger to acceptance — that a person must go through when they realize someone close to them has done something that is utterly problematic.
Though all of these serious topics certainly give Betty more depth than the movie, the show is best when it’s back to the central relationship between these female skaters, which thankfully is often the case with the first season. Mossel clearly understands how empowering it is to be with a group of people who share the same interest and enthusiasm as you. And that’s what, in the end, Betty is about. It shows us that community and friendship can be our escapism from all the hardships that we encounter in our lives every day.
A Perfect Summer Binge
Yes, compared to the other HBO shows like Game of Thrones and The Leftovers (which is brilliant), the stakes in Betty may be very low. But it doesn’t necessarily make it uninteresting. If anything, Betty is a perfect summer binge that will empower you to go pick up a skateboard and skate your way to the city with a group of friends you know will always have your back. With Skate Kitchen and now Betty, Mossel has successfully torn down the sexist terms of betty, which was first used to degrade female skaters, and changed it into a word that sounds powerful.
What do you think of the first season? Let us know your opinion in the comments!
All six episodes of Betty season one are available to stream on HBO Max, HBO GO, and HBO Now.
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