“Skater Girl” director Manjari Makijany intentionally built a set that would live after she called cut: the first skatepark in Rajasthan, India, where rural children can find freedom and confidence on four wheels, and even mingle beyond their caste. Her gentle drama is a promotional piece for the project from need to execution to totally tubular climactic skateboarding championship, timed, of course, to coincide with the day her teenage heroine Prerna (Rachel Saanchita Gupta) is to be married.
There will be no kick-flipping of clichés in Makijany’s script, co-written with her sister Vinati Makijany. What’s novel are simply her images of Prerna — whose name means “inspiration” — zipping through her village’s curved alleyways and dusty marketplace, and, in one scene, accidentally launching her board off an old temple and into a river. , which to Makijany could be the happy ending she wants.
Prerna, modeled after several youngsters the Makijanys befriended in pre-production, isn’t a girl who’s been given space to dream. Though her father is too proud to admit he needs help, she’s been taken out of school to sell roasted peanuts on the street, and, when the family is shamed into sending her back to class, gets sent to sweep the hallways because she can’t afford a new textbook, which, we learn, is the cost of a bottle of water. Like a pebble on a ramp, her challenges are at once so small they seem invisible, while having the power to control the direction of her life.
This, implies Makijany, is the depressing trajectory for girls like Prerna, unless someone pays attention. Enter Jessica (Amy Maghera), a Londoner who arrives in Prerna’s village for a two-week trip to connect with her own family roots (“Jealous of your #RusticHoliday,” comments an Instagram friend) — and, luckily, not only has the empathy to spot the kids’ interest in skateboarding, but also the credit card to order boxes of decks and wheels and, only much later, helmets and kneepads. When the local bureaucrats, whom Makijany skewers in a few pointed scenes, attempt to criminalize skateboarding, the idea to build a 14,000 square foot skatepark possesses a posse of westernized millennials over a thousand miles away in Bangalore, who arrive with bags of concrete and the patience to teach Prerna’s younger brother Ankush (a plucky Shafin Patel) to ollie.
Gupta, making her feature debut, plays Prerna with the vulnerable charm of a cartoon mouse. She’s obedient, not weak — a distinction Gupta shows in the tilt of her neck — and when she accidentally breaks one of the area’s written rules, Gupta looks properly aghast, while allowing a glint of excitement in her eye. Though she’s liberated on the skateboard (Gupta’s toothy smile might be the most unselfconscious grin in screen history), elsewhere, she keeps her head down — particularly around the school principal, who also happens to be the father of her upper-caste crush, and her own dad, who slaps her in the face and orders her to cook lentils. “Why are you playing with things meant for boys?” he barks. Later, he frets, “Who will marry her if she breaks her bones?”
The dynamics are more convincing than the dialogue. In one sequence, Jessica assures her friend (Jonathan Readwin) that she doesn’t want to disrupt the village. He assures her that she has. Cut to a montage of wobbly skater kids busting up clotheslines and card games, and an angry elder yelling, “They’ve disrupted everything!” From there, the film becomes even more dependent on tropes that haven’t evolved since “The Little Rascals” and montages set to folksy music. It’s as uplifting and threadbare as a feel-good viral video stretched to feature length, yet Makijany’s ability to rally the troops, get solid performances from first-time actors, and simply get the film made is worth a genuine cheer.
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