At one point in “Minding the Gap,” one of the young Chicago skateboarders at the center of Bing Liu’s documentary asks the director which type of filming they’re doing: “The one where I pretend you’re not there, or the other kind?” In fact, it’s both. Liu’s lovely portrait of wayward men stumbling into early adulthood functions both as a snapshot of their tumultuous lives and Liu’s own experience alongside them. Combining first-rate skate video footage with a range of confessional moments, “Minding the Gap” is a warmhearted look at the difficulties of reckoning with the past while attempting to escape its clutches.
Set against the backdrop of blue-collar America in Rockford, Illinois, Liu’s first feature is also an impressive compilation of skate videos interspersed with revealing conversations. Liu glides alongside his peers in abandoned parking lots and skate parks, capturing their fast-paced skills and the way they reflect a rough-and-tumble lifestyle. At its center is a tight-knit trio: 23-year-old Zack, who struggles to raise a newborn with his girlfriend; Keire, a 17-year-old trying to find a job and the sole African-American in the group; and Liu himself. The movie often drifts alongside through late-night parties and prolonged conversations about their intentions in life, but ultimately settles into exploring a series of hardships that complicate their freewheeling existence.
With time, it’s clear that each man has experienced similar challenges with their families. Both Liu and Keire were abused by the father figures in their households, and suppressed the resulting trauma for years until Liu forces them to reckon with the past. Meanwhile, the seemingly lovable Zack turns out to be abusive toward his girlfriend, attempting to hide the full extent of his behavior from the filmmaker. As Liu pushes deeper, confronting his own mother about her ex-husband and watching Zack’s household fall apart, he conjures a fascinating collage of intimate moments.
“Minding the Gap” meanders in parts and sometimes relies too heavily on redundant footage, but it contains a staggering degree of maturity for a movie directed and focused on such young subjects. Liu doesn’t sugarcoat anything about their lives, and frequently lands on nuanced observations about race and class. The result is a unique window into growing up and reckoning with a troubled youth. They seem truly liberated when they skate.
Roaming through ruminative passages filled with recollections and fears, the movie mirrors “Boyhood” in its capacity to capture the maturation process over a lengthy period. But where that movie provided a specific look at white, privileged American life (albeit one beset by divorce and other complications), “Minding the Gap” captures the opposite — what it means to feel marginalized and repressed, while struggling to grasp the words to fight back.
Unlike the untold number of personal documentaries in which directors insert themselves into the narrative, Liu seems hesitant, even apologetic, about appearing on camera. Sitting down with his mother as she squints in the bright lights, he captures their conversation in a two-shot, illustrating the awkward nature of this formal interrogation process as he attempts to get her to justify the abusive man who once ruled their household. It’s a subtle means of acknowledging the tendency to leave such demons unchecked, and why it’s essential to confront them. That subtext lingers throughout the movie.
With its loose observational style, “Minding the Gap” plays like a grittier variation on Michael Apted’s “7 Up” series, which similarly eschews clear narrative trajectory for more contemplative glimpses of young people in the midst of constant transition. Lieu ends his story at a natural point in the young character’s lives, but the outcome also begs for a sequel.
“Minding the Gap” premiered in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.