What first seems like a sweet story about a skateboarding community filling the emptiness left behind by broken families, molds layer-by-layer into a piercing excavation of the wide-reaching pain caused by domestic abuse. Written, produced, edited, photographed, and directed by Bing Liu, the documentary Minding the Gap is as much a portrait of the filmmaker’s hometown of Rockford, Illinois, as it is an autobiography brilliantly framed in and through the lives of his best friends growing up.
Liu focuses on three boys: Keire, Zack, and himself. Keire, the youngest, is a goofy, lovable African-American boy with short, dark hair. He is the most approachable of the three. Kindness rests in his eyes. Yet, there is a lingering temper that dare not be awoken by any nemesis skater. He dons a gap between his top front teeth like probable hero Mac Demarco, carrying many of the same nonchalant mannerisms and skate/punk/prankster cultural quips –a small hat, an animated laugh, a kindly “Don’t Give a Fuck” attitude, a spirited demeanor, dingy-cool clothes.
Zack has a similar attitude, but his disposition is decidedly more ignorant. He’s skinny and white with straight brown hair down to his chin that typically lifts above its true length as it sways heavily to one side. He wears one of two things: a Hawaiian button-down shirt or a dirty tee from an afternoon spent roofing. In his hand, there is always a premium-style beer or a pipe overflowing with weed. We learn that words come naturally to him as he delivers quotable lines, but we also start to doubt his sincerity as the story of the three subjects darkens.
Bing as a character is rarely seen, despite how focal he is to the film. We catch glimpses of him in old skate videos from grade school and holding the camera in mirror shots. When we see him in full much later in the documentary, he appears to be long-divorced from his life as a skater. The short, business-presentable hair and in-vogue plaid brandish his burgeoning career as a high-quality filmmaker whose camera crew credits include the movies Divergent, Transcendence, Jupiter Ascending, and Chi-Raq. His effort in documenting the present stems from his habit of recording the past. His interests are a perfect, passionate convergence of things that result in the film.
Growing up in the skate culture of Rockford is what bonds Zack, Keire, and Bing on the surface. Each one is a child who, in their own way, is misunderstood, maltreated, and/or abandoned by their family. They echo each other’s statements as they reflect — things like “skateboarding is more of a family than my family” and “we formed a family to look out for each other because no one else was looking out for us.” But it is not a mere binding agent. Skating is their belief system, their loose religion. Of course, it would go against the grain of the group to have rules, but their faith in the Board is as salvific as ever.
As the story leans away from skate parks and into individual homes, we begin to realize that they are hardly similar people. The semi-constant eruption of nervous laughter that they all have in common is rebranded from a cute cultural convention into a shading mechanism, a defense, a façade that distances each one of them from the difficult — to say the least — lives they’ve endured growing up.
About halfway through, Liu begins to redirect the spotlight towards the women in their lives. Zack’s girlfriend, Nina, leaves him and takes their newborn baby. Liu follows the young mother to her aunt and uncle’s safe, clean home where she chooses to raise the child. Zack keeps getting hammered. His fun glow fades as exponentially as his willingness to be a responsible father and Liu stumbles upon his reproachable tendency toward partner abuse while interviewing a depressed Nina.
Liu digs into Keire’s rough, complex relationship with his father and the reality of Keire’s learning what it means to grow into a black man in a primarily white suburb of Illinois. We catch glimpses of Keire’s mother’s life as a primarily single mother. Intermittently, Liu points the camera at himself as he sits down with his own distraught mother to ask hushed questions about the abusive man she married who became his step-father.
It’s hard to know if this is actually the way it felt for Liu, but Minding the Gap comes across as a revisitation of a home that Liu has left far behind. His approach feels urgent, as if he cannot move on without illuminating the injustice that sinks his hometown and those in it without utilizing his gift as a filmmaker to tell the story of oppressed people.
Liu opens the film with gorgeous footage of the supremely talented boys weaving around on their skateboards through a parking garage that becomes more like a tunnel of light, dreamy and smooth, never telegraphing who will go where at any given moment. The film ends with similar clips, but the meaning of the footage changes drastically over the 90 minutes in between. Liu set out to make a documentary about best friends finding respite in skateboarding, but he ended up documenting much more.