The first feature film by 30-year-old documentarian Bing Liu, Minding the Gap has seen its reputation grow from its debut at 2018’s Sundance Film Festival throughout its long trek across the global festival and arthouse circuits. The movie’s journey from a scrapbook of teenagers’ skateboarding home videos to Oscar-nominated documentary is reflective of its quality as a revelatory work by a major new voice in the medium.
The film follows Liu and two of his friends, Kiere and Zack, along with the friends and families in their orbit, in the economically depressed city of Rockford, Ill. Since childhood, the three have bonded around skateboarding as a way of dealing (or avoiding dealing) with their home lives, which were fraught with domestic violence. As the trio creeps into adulthood, they all struggle with the prospect of growing up with a legacy of abuse looming over them.
The prospect of “I made a documentary about my friends” may sound cringeworthy, but Liu approaches this subject matter with a sensitivity and intelligence that many filmmakers twice his age lack. This is likely helped by the fact that, as a friend of his subjects, he loves and wants to do right by them.
But there is an artistry and an understanding of the medium to Liu that elevates Minding the Gap beyond a personal portrait. Produced by Kartemquin Films, the Chicago non-profit that produced such seminal docs as Inquiring Nuns and Hoop Dreams, he understands the tradition in which he’s working.
That tradition is one of reckoning with the social and political realities that underpin personal stories. While each of the trio has their own story, they are all living with essentially the same demons. Liu addresses cycles of abuse, economic inequality, racism and addiction without ever using any of those words.
Unlike other recent films, this avoids the obnoxious trend of romanticizing early-’00s skateboarding culture. Liu understands that skateboarding could just as easily have been basketball, punk rock or chess club. It’s the boys’ passion, but it’s primarily the outlet through which they avoid (and the audience explores) Kiere’s fear of becoming trapped in toxic Rockford or Zack’s alcoholism, deadbeat parenting and spousal abuse.
The film is a particular portrait of a particular generation, in a particular place and time. But of course it’s a story that could happen in any city, to any group of young people, at any time. A film about the repetitive cycles of abuse could easily lack catharsis. Liu largely takes a backseat as a character in the film, but he briefly takes centre stage to provide the film’s onscreen catharsis, asking difficult questions of someone who hurt him. It’s a sign of his wisdom and sensitivity that he takes this burden on himself rather than asking it of his subjects.
It’s an admirable act on Liu’s part, not just because he spares his subjects that pain. In stepping out from behind the camera to ask these difficult questions, he’s asking for himself, his friends, for everyone in the audience who has someone they need to ask, “Why did you allow me to be hurt?” Despite Liu’s specific circumstances, the questions are universal. So are the answers he receives.