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'Betty' review: TV version of 'Skate Kitchen' fails to deliver on indie film's promise

Rachelle Vinberg, Ardelia "Dede" Lovelace, Nina Moran, Moonbear,

Rachelle Vinberg, Ardelia "Dede" Lovelace, Nina Moran, Moonbear, Raekwon Haynes in HBO's "Betty."   Credit: HBO/Alison Rosa

SERIES "Betty"
WHEN|WHERE Premieres Friday at 11 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Teenage girls of all colors and orientations bonded over a love of skateboarding in “Skate Kitchen,” the 2018 indie hit from writer-director Crystal Moselle (“The Wolfpack”). Featuring a nonprofessional cast of New York City skater-girls whom Moselle found on the subway, “Skate Kitchen” blended documentary and fiction to tell a simple coming-of-age story with the kind of street-level authenticity that typically eludes Hollywood. Its heroine, an amiable tomboy named Camille, was played by Rachelle Vinberg, a Long Islander whose Instagram account gave the movie its cheeky title — a play on outdated notions of female domesticity.

Now the inevitable has happened: “Skate Kitchen” has becomes an HBO series, retitled “Betty.” (That’s slang for an attractive female, as fans of “Clueless” may remember.) The main cast is back, again directed by Moselle, this time with a revolving cast of writers. For its six-episode first season, the half-hour “Betty” airs in a late-night slot befitting its frank talk, sexuality and drug use.

MY SAY The first thing we see in “Betty” is the badly bruised butt of Kirt, a rough-and-tumble girl who has paused to take a proud selfie of her injury. It’s a funny and very fine opening image, one that promises an up-close view of a rugged urban subculture. It’s also great to see Nina Moran return as Kirt. Essentially a lesbian-skaterversion o f Jeff Spicoli from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” Kirt was a highlight of the original film.

Alas, almost immediately, “Betty” fails to deliver on its promise. In Episode 1, Camille searches for her stolen backpack with the help of a new friend, Janay (Dede Lovelace). As the two stop to goof around in a Chinatown mall and help an old man find his apartment, it becomes clear that this series will be built mostly on Moselle’s gift for capturing authentic-feeling moments. Little details and dreamy music, however, are no substitute for a compelling story.

The show’s dramas are oddly low-stakes and small-scale. Camille likes a guy nicknamed Bambi (Edmund Donovan), but he turns chilly before anything happens between them. Indigo (Ajani Russell), a rich girl from SoHo, loses her vape pens. Kirt takes too many mushrooms. With so little happening — and so very many shots of people skating or smoking spliffs — these short episodes start to feel awfully long. (You’d never know the writers worked on successful shows like “Big Love,” “Frasier” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”)

Only rarely does “Betty” tackle a compelling topic. In one episode, we learn that Honeybear (Moonbear), a gay provocateur who wears open shirts with pasties, is carefully closeted at home. In another, Janay tries to make sense of a sexual-assault accusation against her good friend Donald (Caleb Eberhardt). The former storyline is left dangling; the latter unfolds so haltingly and confusingly that you may wonder why “Betty” brought it up.

The show’s biggest misstep comes when Indigo is plucked from the skatepark to be a model. “Give me low class — no privileges,” sneers the obnoxious fashionista at the studio. “Give me food stamps, give me WIC vouchers!” The satire feels far too sketch-comedy for this docufiction series, and what’s more the show may have just skewered itself. “Betty” does tend to exoticize its multicultural, pansexual, street-urchin cast — Moselle’s camera lingers on them lovingly — but nobody thought to give these characters much in the way of real personalities.

Is it possible that young skater girls will tune into “Betty” just to see themselves represented on screen? Maybe. Their real lives, though, are surely more interesting than this.

BOTTOM LINE Young, hip and commendably diverse, but dramatically DOA.

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