Minding the Gap (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Your whole life society tells you, like, “Oh, be a man, and you are strong, and you are tough, and margaritas are gay,” you know, like. You know. You don’t grow up thinking that’s the way you are. When you’re a kid, you just do, you just act and then somewhere along the line, everyone loses that.
The documentary opens with a long tracking shot of childhood friends skateboarding and zigzagging their way through the empty streets of Rockford, Illinois. It is beautifully shot, capturing a sense of freedom and reckless abandon, and it feels as though we are skateboarding right alongside them. But this stunning sequence is not indicative of what the picture dares to dive into: race and class in modern America; poor cities like Rockford being left behind or forgotten; the effects of child abuse and domestic violence; what it means to be a friend, a son and a father; skateboarding serving not only as an escape but also a means of gaining control; the evanescence of childhood. Director Bing Liu juggles these topics with seeming ease, and I was riveted.
One of three core subjects is the director himself. The film unfolds throughout the course of several years and so we watch him grow alongside his friends, Keire and Zack. They love to skate, laugh, hang out and be silly. Their joyfulness is infectious… until the difficult questions are broached and the unblinking camera captures how the interviewee responds. One way or another, the trio have been touched by abuse. To reveal specifics, I think, would do the picture a disservice and so I will refrain. But I must say that the director has a knack for ironing out themes. He does so with such patience and elegance that even though his picture’s scope is small, it feels monumental.
The work inspires us to observe with a keen eye and read between the lines. For example, there are several occasions in which we get a chance to look inside the boys’ houses. We pick up on the mess almost immediately: clothes that have piled up, plates with some food on them scattered about, alcohol bottles on the floor. But we must ask ourselves why this might be so. It could be that the house is simply small. Or that a room is too cramped even for just one person. But we can look even closer. Where are the parents or the adult figures in their lives? Are they at work? Hiding from the camera? Living somewhere else?
I walked away from the movie feeling as though I had seen a three-hour epic. There is neither title card nor subtitle that states how much time has passed. It isn’t necessary because there is something to digest nearly every second. (We do, however, watch a baby grow in front of our very eyes.) Particularly tense is when conflict arises—between Zack and his girlfriend, for instance—and we are shoved into that moment. They yell and scream at each other. Sometimes that’s all there is. But there is a time when Nina shows us the gash on her eyebrow (which she hides under her hair) and mentions the bruises on her body. Bing contemplates asking Zack about his violent episode. Then we hold our breath just a little because Zack’s temperament, especially when he feels cornered, is well-established by then. And so is his penchant for drinking. Out of the three, Zack is the one who comes across as the most stuck.
And there is Keire whose laugh and overall sunny attitude do not change over the years. We watch him get his first job as a dishwasher, lightyears away from the angry kid who broke another kid’s skateboard after a row at the park. There is a sadness to Keire that Bing connects with on a deep level. This is apparent when the camera fixates on Keire’s face, how his emotions work their way up to his eyes as he tells personal stories in regard to his relationship with his deceased father. His father was strict and he wanted his son to be a good person. And he wanted Keire to be proud of being black. When Keire recalls a memory, we paint a clear portrait in our minds. Maybe he, too, is like Bing: a natural storyteller. Why is it that we appreciate our parents more when they’re no longer around?
“Minding the Gap” digs deep and so the journey is worthwhile. It is the kind of movie that teenagers and adults can appreciate because of its honesty. I hope we get an update on Bing, Keire, and Zack’s lives ten or twenty years from now. I want to believe they’ll be all right.