The opening frame of Minding the Gap shows us a young man scaling the side of a building.
As he opens a locked gate to let his friends in, we learn they are trespassing and they all have skateboards. Of course—this is going to be one of those documentaries offering a depiction of skateboarders as rule-breaking outsiders. A few shots later, though, a feeling of trepidation sets in. Just as quickly as it began, the boys bail on their mission while almost gleefully admitting their fear. A voiceover begins to speak of the innocence of youth, reflected in the group of friends playfully skating in a more accessible and risk-free parking lot.
A blend of complicated themes are set up in this opening scene. Before we dive into those, however, the audience is treated to a lighthearted romp through the childhood years, courtesy of filmmaker Bing Liu’s early skate videos. Against a backdrop of Rust Belt America (Rockford, Illinois) the film introduces Keire and Zack, two of the skaters in the opening scene, as well as Zack’s girlfriend Nina. Zack has left home and supported himself since he was 16 and is learning how to balance the responsibilities in his life—he and Nina are expecting a child—with his passion for skateboarding. Keire, who has never really felt like he fit in with his family and is also on the brink of adulthood, found Zack through skateboarding, which acts as his release. Bing, the filmmaker, is introduced by a local skate shop owner as an intense outsider, different from the rest of the boys his age, who also used his passion for skating as a means for control.
This lays the groundwork to support a deep and probing documentary that spares no frame its authentic power. What seems like it could slip into the glorification of skateboarding and male childhood rebellion is revealed to be an exposé on violence, male identity, and generational trauma in America. Instead of employing easy platitudes around the cinematic potential of skateboarding, Bing represents childhood through tender scenes, like one of Keire hiding behind a tree while others light fireworks, the violence and noise causing him to seek refuge from an activity that, if handled wrong, could clearly hurt him. He’s not ready to enter that potentially painful world. The sentiment echoes that which is felt in the movie’s opening: a quiet devastation.
Filmed over the course of six years, there are no unintentional images or words on screen, Bing conscientiously choosing small moments to pinpoint major issues in the subject’s lives that revolve around isolation and identity. For example, a scene in which Keire observes how his blackness is treated by others, in real time, as a group of his white buddies laugh at a YouTube video featuring the N-word. This scene is then juxtaposed with Kiere’s father, who we learn to be a complicated figure in Kiere’s life, stating that, “When you’re black, you get to prove people wrong every day.” In Bing’s world, good and bad, safety and danger, hope and emptiness, pain and growth are all interconnected; there are no convenient categories to delineate where these things stand. Rather, both subject and audience must learn to recognise these things in the chaos of their own world.
These seemingly simple moments give us behavioural clues about not only the relationships between this group of friends, but also their existence as individuals. The carefully crafted film slowly uncovers each character’s life, expertly intertwining their stories in and out of each other. Drunken July 4th celebrations at Zack’s house smash-cut out of revelry to his crying child in the early hours of the morning. Lyrical sequences of Keire and friends skating transition to his older brother resignedly heading off to begin his jail sentence. These incidents unfold in succession, seemingly with no causality, but representing the rich tapestry of relationships and interdependencies that form during the transition we all make from youth to adulthood.
The subjects let Bing into their lives and spaces with a tender trust that, through his storytelling, is then transferred to the viewers. When, 15-minutes into the film, Keire reveals he was physically disciplined by his recently deceased father and labels it “child abuse”, we feel as if we are privy to an extremely intimate, difficult moment like it was told to us personally, not just sussed out by a camera crew. Seeing Nina at work and on-screen alone allows us to expand our view of her beyond her relationship with Zack. This is not just going to be a skateboarding adventure. We follow the separate tendrils of each storyline over time and, like life, everything presented on screen is informed and influenced by the rest of the story. Bing’s off-screen (and sometimes on-screen) questioning and experienced camerawork act as a bridge between things that may otherwise seem disparate. This multi-dimensional approach, combined with its lean hour and a half run time, lets information sink in experientially rather than didactically. This offers the viewers the same respect as the film’s subjects, allowing them to draw their own conclusions.
The long production period and thoughtful editing pay off even further when Bing points the camera on himself and his family. He becomes an intricate part of the web he is weaving and every bit as important as Zack, Keire, and Nina. His family’s own multi-generational trauma is brought into the frame, literally, in a tense interview scene with his mother that, despite all the film equipment and obvious setup, in true vérité fashion, feels as if we are invited to observe a conversation had between mother and son in the still, truthful moments at the end of a difficult day. Asking the audience to care about the filmmaker’s interests is a tall order, especially in a documentary, but it leaves you feeling like an important witness to someone’s true voice. The power to make a film personal is hard to wield but, by the time we experience it, feels as natural as one of Keire’s nosegrinds.
Which reminds me—I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Minding the Gap also offers one of the best on-screen depictions of skateboarding I’ve ever seen. A fan of films such as Larry Clark’s Kids, Bing was leery of artistic attempts to explain skateboarding and prefers it when it’s just allowed to exist. “We’ve all seen really cheesy films about skateboarding,” he tells me, “we don’t need any further explanation of it. Actually, I think academia is a better way of explaining skateboarding than art. If I was to write an academic paper I would say it has to do with control. In skateboarding, you fall, you get hurt, you feel pain, but at least you control that pain. At home, maybe you can’t control that pain.” In this way, skateboarding in the film acts as a mirror for the characters, reflecting back the person they want to see in themselves. When, towards the end of the film, Keire explains how mad skateboarding makes him sometimes but that he can’t stay mad at it, Bing prompts further explanation, saying, “But it hurts you.” Keire’s responds, “So did my dad. But I love him to death,” an insight emblematic of the powerful, deeply personal, hopeful, and profoundly heartbreaking treatise on masculinity, race, and family in America today.
If you’re in LA on September the 23rd, we’ll be screening Minding the Gap at 1700 Naud followed by a Q&A with director Bing Liu. Stay tuned for more details.