“I could be on the verge of a mental breakdown but if I can skate, I’m fine.”
Bing Liu’s Oscar-nominated Minding the Gap observes a group of young men and their decade long friendship anchored by a mutual love of skateboarding and difficult home life. Initially, the documentary appears to be an easy-going look into a group of friends having fun, mucking about, and causing trouble, yet it soon proves to be much more.
Rockford, Illinois, known for its high unemployment rates, violent crime, and shrinking population serves as a backdrop for the friends who we watch navigate the responsibilities of adulthood. Whilst reflecting on their past, the three are thrust into a new chapter of life and it is recognised that they “have to fully grow up and it’s going to fucking suck”. As adult life comes knocking newly turned 18-year-old Keire gets his first job, 20-something Zack grapples with becoming a first-time father, and Liu begins to dissect his abusive childhood.
Much of the documentary deals with abuse and broken families, a reality that members of the group experienced first-hand growing up. Although discussions of this are painful to watch, it provides a perspective of abuse that goes well beyond faceless facts and statistics. As the subject is broached, the film also looks at the meaning of masculinity, particularly for someone whose experience of men is that of little affection, repressed feelings, or violence.
We see Zack carry into adulthood the tricky relationship he has with his father. Reneging on parenting duties and coming to wallow in alcoholism, he cites fears that he would do more harm than good to his child. It also becomes clear that violence begets violence as Keire’s father meted out a method of violent punishment that he himself was raised with. With his dad no longer alive and with no chance for reconciliation, Keire is tasked with moving on from their tumultuous relationship alone. Although the situation is no doubt complicated for him, Keire decides that he is still able to feel love for someone who hurt him.
Importantly, the value of skating for these boys relates less to the act of skating itself (although that is important) and more to the way in which it provided an avenue to freedom for them. They used skating as a distraction from their harsh lives, “a thing to get away”, with each new skill they learnt a testament to the hours spent avoiding home.
The lack of positive familial relationships as they were growing up resulted in each of the young men searching for connections elsewhere, which they found in the skating community and in each other. They became one another’s support system and formed their own family because “no one else was looking out for us”. Yet as revelations come to light, Liu and Keire recognise that they may need to move beyond these adolescent friendships. Painful as it is, Keire concludes that those he previously admired aren’t as faultless as he once thought and that in growing up it may be time to grow apart. This is particularly uncomfortable as these friendships were at one time his only lifeline.
The documentary feels deeply personal to Liu and belongs to him in every sense. Aside from directing, he also handled the cinematography and editing; it is this extensive involvement that shines through. There is also an intimacy that comes with the filmmaker being a subject of his own documentary. Liu allows himself to be vulnerable on camera with many of his scars laid bare for all to see. As viewers, it even feels at times like we are intruding on private conversations that would otherwise take place behind closed doors. As such, it seems much of the motivation for the documentary came from Liu looking to move on from his childhood. This is clear as he initiates conversations with his mother about her own complicity in the abuse he suffered from her husband. In this sense, the process of creating and featuring in the documentary was an act of healing for him.
Minding the Gap is both raw and authentic. With only a 93-minute runtime, Liu has crafted an exploration of skateboarding culture, racism, masculinity, and domestic violence with an intimacy rarely before seen. It is painful but well worth the watch.
Illustration: Verity Laycock