Six or seven years ago, Bing Liu of Rockford, Illinois — the country’s second-most-dangerous city among those with fewer than 200,000 souls — began filming two of his skateboard-riding buddies for the documentary that became Minding the Gap. Early on, the rangy Zack turns and asks why Liu is shooting everything and Liu says, “Because I want to make a montage,” and lo, there’s a montage — a buoyant, syncopated one, of Zack (who’s white) and their other friend, Keire (who’s black), sailing up and over ramps and weaving around obstacles. At some point it might hit you — with a start — that the cinematographer, Liu (who’s Asian-American), must be on a skateboard right behind them, doing much of what they do while also holding a camera, and that his montage has the same hot-dog quality: “Look, Ma, I can edit!”
But despite all the exhilarating footage, Minding the Gap isn’t another skateboard doc. Nor is it a rainbow-coalition bonding story, although the nearly 18-year-old Keire says his buddies were his surrogate family, and Liu briefly addresses the fact of the boys’ different races. The skateboarding and camaraderie are contrapuntal notes, liberating flurries of motion in a powerful saga of kids who were — and in some cases still are — miserably stuck in place. Minding the Gap weaves around and jumps a number of hurdles before closing in on its true subject: childhood abuse and its frightening legacy.
Which is not to say that Keire or Zack knew going in that was the story Liu intended to tell. They let him shoot because he’s their friend, and occasionally throw him a question: “Bing,” says Zack, “is this kind of documentary where I’m supposed to pretend the camera’s not there?” No, it’s not. Liu is in there constantly, offscreen and on-, hanging out with Keire and Zack, tentatively introducing his agenda.
Keire (pronounced like “Pierre” but with a “K”) says his dad was a carpenter who believed in strong discipline of the sort they’d now call “child abuse,” but mainly he feels guilty for saying “I hate you!” to his dad the day before he died. Liu begins to slip in references to the man who followed his single mom home from the Chinese restaurant where she worked and then became his stepdad. The camera moves in on the haunted-looking old house where Liu’s half brother remembers screams and sounds of beating coming every night from Liu’s room.
Zack tells Liu he doesn’t attach much importance to the physical punishment he took as a kid, but with Zack, Liu has another agenda. An alcoholic who works when he can as a roofer but now has a baby with his girlfriend Nina, Zack is uncomfortable with his new responsibility. What, he asks, if his kid had to go to the hospital? “I can’t get home from work and drink a 12-pack like I usually do.” Zack sums up his plight: “Life is moving too fast and we have to grow up, and it’s going to fucking suck.”
One thing that fucking sucks is that Zack and Nina are always at each other’s throats, arguing over which one takes care of the baby on a given day. Zack’s roommate has a tape in which Nina shrieks she’s going to stab Zack. Nina tells Liu, when he brings it up, that the tape doesn’t show what happened before, when Zack punched her and threw her against a table. She says that part of Zack is good, but when he drinks or does drugs …
Minding the Gap feels deceptively loose, even rambling, but as the seasons pass (the film takes place over four years), you begin to feel Liu’s drive toward catharsis for all three of his main characters. (He’s the third.) The climactic sequence is a tour de force. Liu films his mother — who speaks English poorly — as she comes to realize, weeping, the extent of her ex-husband’s brutality toward her children. (She knew how he abused her.) Keire stumbles around a graveyard in the dying light searching for his father’s headstone, then sobs inconsolably. And Zack drunkenly piles abuse on himself (“You put on an act and you let that act become you … I fucking suck”) that you know he’ll direct at someone else (his latest girlfriend, his son) unless he figures out a new design for living.
The real release, however, comes in the skateboard footage that follows, an odyssey through the empty city that’s cut to Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero’s* achingly beautiful score. Liu is still twisted up inside, but now he wears his heart on his skateboard and soars — out of Rockford, away from the legacy of abuse, towards his future as a filmmaker. He’s a terrific one.
*This review previously only listed Nathan Halpern as composer.
Minding the Gap has been nominated for a 2019 Oscar in Best Documentary Feature.