Filmmaker Bing Liu grew up in Rockford, Illinois a struggling city of approximately 150,000 people. At 14 he was given his first video camera and almost immediately he began making his first short films. At age 19 he began a project concentrating on growing up in the skateboarding community. This would become “Minding the Gap”, now an Oscar-nominated documentary which is anything but ‘another skateboarding movie’.
For Liu “Minding the Gap” is a deeply personal exploration. He serves as director, cinematographer, co-editor, and co-producer, but his deeper connection is with the subject matter itself. The film revolves around three friends: Keire, Zack, and Bing. The film’s deftly shot opening shows the friends skateboarding across a seemingly vacant downtown Rockford. We quickly learn this is more than just social time. It’s their time to release and escape from the hands life has dealt them.
A heartbreaking through-line becomes evident the more we get to know these three young men. Keire is African-American and sports a million dollar smile and an infectious personality. But beneath the surface he struggles with troubling memories of his late father who, despite their complex past, Keire misses greatly. He’s such an endearing person and your heart aches for him.
Zack is a bit of a wild-child with an unhealthy love for alcohol. His edgy and reckless lifestyle was his response to growing up with a cruel and oppressive father. But he smacks headfirst into reality after his girlfriend Nina finds out she’s pregnant. Liu’s camera careful documents Zack’s attempted transition from rebellious rowdy to responsible father.
Later Liu brings his own personal story into focus revealing that he too was the victim of an abusive father. For Liu making the film is a means of catharsis and it opens up an opportunity for him to reckon with his painful childhood. His story seamlessly intertwines with the others making each feel distinct and personal yet all part of a single powerful and moving theme.
You can’t say enough about the film’s subtle transformation from an observational study of young adulthood to a piercing examination of domestic abuse and its lasting effects. Liu displays such control of his vision and a good sense of how to bring it all together. He shows it most in the editing room (alongside co-editor Joshua Altman) where they cut through nearly twelve years of footage yet still create something strikingly intimate.
I doubt “Minding the Gap” would be as effective without fully embracing the cinéma vérité approach. The rawness of Liu’s images and the bare, unrestrained conversations are purely organic and sole-baring. There are instances where Liu is perhaps so dedicated to allowing things to play out naturally that people suffer as a result. It poses an interesting question of how much a filmmaker (particularly a documentarian) should get involved when he/she knows something bad has happened. And how much (if any) responsibility lies at their feet? This was a question I still struggle with concerning a couple of the film’s darker moments.
Still, there’s no denying the emotional gut-punch “Minding the Gap” packs. It’s all about the heart-breaking struggles of Keire, Zack, and Liu and the different life paths each of them travel. Will they be able the mend the wounds of past abuse? Will they repeat the sins of their fathers? It can all be pretty tough to watch. But just when we need it, we’re given one of those freeing skateboarding sequences – beautifully shot and full of smiles, laughter and energy. They offer us glimmers of hope for these young men, so full of life yet burdened by their pasts and uncertain of their futures.
VERDICT – 4 STARS