by Paislee House, Film Critic
I’ve always loved extreme sports. I still watch the X Games every year. Once, in junior high, I went to dinner with a boyfriend and his parents. My boyfriend’s father mentioned how skateboarding was for troublemakers and it took no talent at all. As I watched Bing Liu’s debut documentary “Minding the Gap,” those comments managed to infiltrate my brain and drudge up all the classist prejudice that surrounds skateboarding.
Much like skateboarding itself, “Minding the Gap” is a fast, intense, and emotional journey. It follows the stories of three friends in Rockford, Illinois. Rockford is a medium-sized town in northern Illinois that the documentary notes has seen significant decline in the last few years. Essentially, while in Rockford your options are limited and your future probably looks bleak.
The three subjects of the film are all in their late teens or early 20s and have experienced some form of trauma and abuse in their home lives. Keire, the youngest, is quiet and possesses a certain otherness amongst his peers at the skatepark. Bing, the filmmaker, has less camera time but it’s easily understood how sensitive and fastidious he is. Then there’s Zack who most classically fits into the skateboarder trope. He is loud, drinks too much, and has tons of energy.
“Minding the Gap” is about a lot more than friendship and skateboarding. It’s about the pains of growing up, the cyclical nature of abuse, and the class barriers that make it difficult to overcome our home zip codes. Again, I was thinking about those comments my old boyfriend’s father made and how they said more about him than skateboarders.
For the boys in the film, skateboarding is a source of fun and release. It is their safe haven. A place where they can work out aggression and the sadness they experience in their home lives. Liu’s film is also casually examining why skateboarding often seems to be so alluring to those who often come from low-income families. Skateboarding is relatively cheap, dangerous, and you can do it almost anywhere. It’s accessible. It hurts but that’s part of it. Pain is just a part of these boys’ lives.
The harshness of their lives is reflected in Bing’s camerawork. There is a chunk of old footage from when the boys were even younger, showcasing their youthful selves and allowing the audience to know Bing has been behind the camera for a long time.
One of the best parts of the movie is a sequence of Keire and Zack skateboarding throughout Rockford. The cuts become faster and faster as the two build up their speed. A repetitive clinking of their wheels hitting the pavement moved in line with my heartbeat. A reflection of the forcefulness and intensity that the sport harnesses. Juxtaposed to these harsh edits are extreme close-ups of the film’s subjects.
Much of the film is people talking to Bing behind the camera and there are some incredibly beautiful shots of the people Bing so obviously cares for.
What is most fascinating about “Minding the Gap” is its deepness. The film is being billed as a skateboard documentary, which I fear will allow many to gloss over it. Though the three boys and their skateboards might be the subject of the film, what “Minding the Gap” is getting at is the pattern of abuse and familial relationships. The kids in this documentary have had hard times growing up and their friends have become their chosen family as they seek refuge from abuse at home. Bing examines these issues with one-on-one talks with Keire and Zack as well as his own mother.
“Minding the Gap” also takes special interest in the fact that Zack is a new and young father. A solid portion of the film follows the relationship he has not only with his own father but how he manages being one himself.
“Minding the Gap” is a powerful documentary that leaves you questioning how much choice we have in who we become.
It’s playing in select theaters and is available to stream on Hulu, which means you don’t have much of an excuse to not watch it.