Home Theatre: Betty - Friendship and the art of skateboarding
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's Betty, currently streaming on Hotstar
Going into Betty — streaming on Hotstar — all I knew about the series was that it is based on Crystal Moselle's 2018 film, Skate Kitchen, which in turn was a fictionalised story of the eponymous real-life group of female skateboarders in New York City. Now, I have not watched that movie, nor do I know much about skateboarding or the culture around it. Heck, I thought Betty was the name of one of the protagonists (it is actually a pejorative term for girls who hang out at skateparks, implying that they do so without actually knowing how to skate). But, my ignorance of the milieu did not detract from my enjoyment of this show. Not at all. As for the film, it turns out though the show features the same characters, it is essentially a reboot and there was no need to know anything about them from before.
Betty begins with two longtime friends — Kirt and Janay — trying to organise an all-girl skate session. Honeybear is the only one who turns up, though they also mistake Camille for a participant. Camille is actually there with her male skate friends and though she is maybe slightly curious, the ribbing of the guys she's with and their hardly concealed disdain of the 'Betties', make her feign indifference and walk away. The girls later meet Indigo, a weed pen-pusher, and Kirt teaches her how to skate. Betty revolves around these five girls and the actors playing them are all members of Skate Kitchen in real life. Thus, they already have chemistry and the show largely rides on their equation. It lends an authenticity to the series, which is heightened by the naturalistic filmmaking and dialogues.
Moselle, who has created and helmed all episodes of the series, keeps things light and realistic, giving Betty an almost documentary-like vibe. The abundant sequences of people simply skateboarding — or hanging out or dancing in the park — makes us feel like we are simply observing this subculture as it exists in real life. And even for someone who has no idea about skating, these shots are a delight to behold. Their fluidity and the sense of freedom they exude is especially joyous to behold in these times when a lot of us are stuck in quarantine or only venturing out with trepidation.
Betty does have a plot, even if it unfolds at a leisurely pace. The first couple of episodes can seem aimless and meandering with things only really getting going in about the third episode. Despite this, and the fact that the series only consists of six sub-30-minute episodes, Betty manages to give us satisfying character arcs for all the five girls. Camille goes from hanging around with the boys, who treat her with condescension despite her obvious skills, and trying desperately to impress one of them, to learning to cherish the open friendship of the girls. Indigo, we find, comes from an unexpected background. Her endearing camaraderie with her 'plug' Farok ("the only nice drug dealer you're ever gonna meet") is tested when she loses a supply of weed pens she was supposed to sell. Awkward and self-conscious Honeybear, who loves filming people with her camera that's always around her neck, starts a beautiful romance with a girl she sees at the skatepark but then almost screws it up.
Fiercely loyal Kirt has to learn the hard way that "helping the matriarchy" is just as important, if not more so, than fighting the patriarchy. She also gets a lesson in white privilege after she runs away from the scene of a fight (that she escalated) leaving the other (non-white) girls to get arrested. "Okay, I got away! I'm sorry I'm lucky!" she exclaims when they express their frustration over what happened. "No, you're white," shoots back Honeybear. Kirt still doesn't get it and needs a timeout (quite a hilarious one) before she makes it up with the others. Incidentally, given the current Black Lives Matter and Defund the Cops protests, it is quite poignant when Honeybear refuses to run away from the police — "I can't. You know what happens when we run from the cops," she says. The lines were obviously written and filmed before the killing of George Floyd led to the recent protests, but they only drive home again how this has been the lived-in reality of black people for a long time now.
Another serious issue Betty touches on is the MeToo movement. Janay deals with a sexual harassment accusation against her best friend and former boyfriend Donald. For a lighthearted, feel-good show, this subplot is treated with so much sensitivity and sensibility. Though Janay starts off blindly backing her friend and assuming the worst of his accuser, the way she finally handles the situation had me all but cheering out loud. And the way her girlfriends have her back but also gently push her to do the right thing is absolutely lovely.
That's the real delight of this show. The supportive, nurturing friendship of these young women. They hold each other up, have each other's backs, turn up with balloons (even if stolen ones) on birthdays, but also hold each other accountable and ensure they do the right thing. And watching them do so, warms our hearts. Betty left me with a smile on my face and hope in my heart. That's such a precious thing to have in these tumultuous times. I hope the girls of Skate Kitchen skate on and spread joy for a long time to come.