Betty is a disrupter. A disrupter of expectations, of stereotypes, of procedure. It says forget six seasons and a movie, we’re going to make a movie and then some television. It says forget your straight, white, male world, we’re going to follow a bunch of young women, some queer and not all white. It says forget plot, just vibe.
A group of New York City skaters inspired creator/director Crystal Moselle to capture this expansive portrait of youth, which began with the film Skate Kitchen and now continues with HBO’s short and sweet series Betty. It features plenty of skateboarding, of course, but it’s mostly concerned with how its central group of friends exists in a world that allows them nearly unparalleled freedom of sexuality and responsibility while also shouldering them with difficult to grasp cultural problems (season one dealt with #MeToo while this season was shot in the midst of COVID). Much like its inspirations, who make up the core of the cast, it skates through the whole mess, never quite breezing by the snags they face but not bothering to fight the flow of life, either.
A singularity, let’s call it, the brilliance of which is admittedly hard to grasp. You have to look past the cutesy title credits, which plasters Betty (a gendered put-down in the skateboarding world) on whatever halfpipe or discarded cast is in the establishing scene. You have to lose yourself in the kind of skateboarding shots you’ve seen again and again in coming-of-age stories that mine this culture for angst instead of honesty. And you definitely have to get past the rigid line deliveries, which betray the non-actors portraying a fictionalized version of their world.
The reward for doing this? A peek at a sweet, funny, incisive incarnation of that awkward period before true adulthood (if you ever get out of it). Like any friend group at this time in life, some are more likely to make it through than others. Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) is the more reserved, serious one being courted by a corporate brand. Honeybear (Moonbear) is feeling out the borders of a loving relationship. Janay (Dede Lovelace) is lending a hand where she can during the pandemic and trying to get a cute boy to sleep with her already. Those three will be fine. Indigo (Ajani Russell) is on less stable footing, still dealing with strained familial relationships and taking more and more risks to get money. Then there’s Kirt (Nina Moran), the false prophet stoner who may never grow up.
The second season lets them come in and out of each other’s lives, their disparate wanderings (clean arcs aren’t really a thing in Betty) allowing the show to bounce from one simple truth to another. For instance, while the season takes place during COVID the novelty of the situation is long past. They are in the doldrums of staying outside while the weather turns cold, of masks pulled under chins, and of trying to keep life going. We’ve already gotten plenty of media taking on this strange period and more is in the pipeline, but Betty captures it best with what should be the emblem of our time: a drive-thru strip club offering women, wings, and advice.
This kind of wry, no-nonsense outlook is perhaps what makes Betty feel so unique. There isn’t an ounce of preciousness to these people; their foibles are on full display right next to their strengths, the ease with which they navigate previous generations’ hang-ups as refreshing as their age-old problems are familiar. Coming-of-age shows love to wallow in the drama of uncertainty, to ask whether this new generation is better or worse off. Betty lets them glide (and faceplant) through it with the certainty that, like all who came before them, the kids will be all right.