Crystal Moselle adapts her 2018 indie into an HBO show, bringing the original cast along for the ride.
A betty, as defined by a three-minute google search, is a promiscuous young woman who hangs around skateboarders. Betty is not about those women. From the first seconds, taken up by a close-up of a nasty bruise on a young woman’s behind, series creator Crystal Moselle makes it clear that the show is interested in reclaiming the title from a sexist stereotype.
Based on Moselle’s second feature, Skate Kitchen, Betty tells a fictionalized story about a real-life skate collective (@theskatekitchen on Instagram). While Skate Kitchen framed the story as a new girl joining the established group, Betty shakes up the character’s names and relationships, making most of them strangers trying to found their skating collective. By changing a few details, Moselle and Leslie Arfin create a new story that more naturally represents the search for community at the heart of both projects.
After a girls skate sesh gone wrong, Kurt (Nina Moran), Janay (Dede Lovelace), and Honeybear (Moonbear) come together in mad dash around Brooklyn for Camille’s (Rachel Vinburg) backpack. This bag has a key to a legendary skate spot, Winterbowl, that none of them are allowed to skate. But while Skate Kitchen’s Camille was idolizing the rest of the skate kitchen girls, here she’s never heard of them, preferring the company of the boys the group hates. Their tear through the city brings them into contact with Indigo (Ajani Russell), a low-level weed dealer who’s never touched a skateboard.
The heart of Betty is Moran, who plays the most grounded, human character in a show full of naturalistic performances. With her backwards hat and her jug of Arizona iced tea, Moran makes Kurt instantly recognizable to anyone who’s spent time in a skate park or hung out with a suburban pot dealer. Moran rises above the pack in a show mostly starring non-actors, creating a fully realized person that you’d meet anywhere (although she’d be too busy going to skate to bother talking to you).
However, the most interesting part of the show is when it grinds to a halt. During their search for Camille’s backpack, Janay and Camille come across a confused old man that can’t find his home. Their search is immediately put on hold by Janay, who leaps into action to help a person in need. It brings to mind an early episode of HBO’s other Brooklyn-based indie series, High Maintenance. But while that show left their diversion on a sad note, Betty paints this interaction as a creepier one, with their old man making an oafish pass at Janay when they finish helping him.
This is not a show about community. Instead, it’s about one small group versus the rest of the world.
The similarities with High Maintenance are hard to ignore, but when put against each other, Betty doesn’t have the empathy to keep up. This is not to say that Betty is a bad show; it’s just about a different world that happens to be in the same setting. This is not a show about community. Instead, it’s about one small group versus the rest of the world. Moselle’s world distinguishes itself with skate video cinematography and a large chip on its shoulder.
Refreshingly, the show doesn’t push the girls together at the end of the pilot. There is a long road to travel down before they become the close-knit girl gang previously seen at the heart of Skate Kitchen. By focusing on the dynamic between characters instead of teenage romance, Moselle and company have successfully done away with the failings of their previous collaboration. If they continue this path, Betty will quickly become a must watch.
Betty rolls up to HBO this Friday, May 1 at 10:00 pm.