One of the most impressive feature debuts I’ve seen in quite some time is Bing Liu’s documentary Minding the Gap, about three boys growing up in Rockford, Illinois, and bonding by their mutual love of skateboarding. It just so happens that one of the three boys is the filmmaker, along with Zack, who struggles with alcohol dependency and a violent temper, and Keire, an African-American kid with an infectious laugh and a troubled family dynamic. Liu himself comes from a home in which his stepfather regularly abused him, and as the film moves forward, it becomes clear that skateboarding isn’t going to be its sole focus. In fact, it’s the escape from their real lives that is painful and damaging.
Liu keeps things simple in the beginning, showing the boys in their element at the local skateboard park and using the downtown area as their own personal playground. I’ve seen references to them being from the “wrong side of the tracks,” but if Rockford has a right side of the tracks, Liu keeps it pretty well hidden in the movie. Eventually, Liu interviews his friends, who he began filming before the idea of making a cohesive documentary was even considered, and slowly they reveal troubles in their home lives that make them question their own mental stability and futures. Zack gets his girlfriend pregnant, and while they attempt to make it work as a couple, it’s clear that there’s a disconnect which we at first think is about her not wanting to stay with their child, but is later revealed to be something far more troubling about Zack’s behavior toward her.
Keire’s home life is a bit more stable, although his father died when he was young and his mother’s current boyfriend is no picnic. Though it comes at different times for Zack and Keire, the realization that a life of skateboarding will have to give way to growing up, getting jobs and somehow supporting themselves into adulthood hits them hard, and a bit of the spark leaves their eyes. When they do return to the skate park, there’s something joyous, if temporary, in it.
The way Liu stealthily transitions his story from skateboarding to themes of domestic abuse, broken dreams and the demands of manhood is impressive and exhilarating at times. At one point, Zack simply picks up and moves to Colorado to avoid paying back rent on his apartment, and the backslide into partying and irresponsible behavior is heartbreaking, especially when we realize that he has abandoned his child in the process.
A sequence that pulls a lot of the movie’s issues together involves Liu himself, who has done a remarkable job up to that point of keeping himself as much out of the film as he can, as he interviews his mother about the abuse he and his brother faced at the hands of her second husband. It’s one of the most stark and emotional things you will see on screen all year, but by the end, you feel a certain amount of healing has begun for everyone. Talking about their feelings is not an easy thing for these guys, so it’s all the more impressive to watch Liu coax his friends into opening up. And once he gets them going, it’s tough to get them to stop. Minding the Gap might be the finest documentary experience I’ve had all year, and you should absolutely make a point of seeking it out.
The film opens today for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and is also available on Hulu for streaming. Director Bing Liu will be on hand for several post-screening Q&As during that time, including a handful during which he will be paired with some of the film’s producers, such as Diane Quon, Steve James and Gordon Quinn. For the complete Q&A schedule and a list of showtimes, go to the Film Center’s event page.