Poignancy derived from the passage of time plays a similar, if less stark, role in Minding the Gap as it does in “The Up Series” and some of Richard Linklater’s work.
Poignancy derived from the passage of time plays a similar, if less stark, role in Minding the Gap as it does in “The Up Series” and some of Richard Linklater’s work. But Bing Liu’s debut documentary, which features footage from the lives of a trio a young skateboard enthusiasts filmed over the course of 12 years, goes a step further. The director is one of the film’s main subjects himself. Liu performs an impressive high-wire act as both observer and subject. He largely stays behind the camera, keeping much of his physical appearances onscreen to archival footage of him tooling around on a skateboard. But he’s fully immersed in this film. Not only do interviews with his mother and brother offer heartrending insight into his tumultuous upbringing, but his friends Zack and Keire—who came of age with Liu in the working class of Rockford, Illinois—offer a raw portrait of their own struggles, opening up to Liu’s lens in ways that would likely be much more difficult in front of a camera wielded by a stranger.
Early in the film, the boys describe their skateboarding group as a makeshift family because they all come from broken homes. Each of the three primary subjects in the film has been impacted by physical abuse. Zack finds himself coming to terms with becoming a new father himself, and his laidback demeanor belies a turbulent psyche that’s frustrated by his lack of education and opportunity. He recklessly turns to alcohol for solace, and his usually affable personality reveals a dark side when it’s revealed that domestic violence has factored into his relationship with his girlfriend and “baby mama,” Nina. Meanwhile, Keire finds himself coping with the fact that he had a fractured relationship with his late father, which makes his coping with his dad’s unexpected death more difficult. In one particularly heartbreaking scene, Keire desperately struggles to locate his father’s headstone in a cemetery.
As for Liu, he considers himself pretty well-adjusted considering the physical abuse he endured at the hands of his stepfather. His brother recounts overhearing the beatings through the walls and describes them as disturbing and “almost scarring” to listen to. His mother insists that he must be making this documentary as a way to process that abuse, which Liu considers as a possibility, but the film as a whole is so much more than that. While the abuse angle takes up a good portion of the runtime, and action shots of the trio skating around Rockford as a form of escapism more than catharsis crop up throughout, the film is most compelling simply in offering a raw and earnest portrait of the young adulthoods of three guys who are struggling to find their place in the world.
By immersing himself within the narrative without making it all about himself—his friends and family often ask whether or not they should address him behind the camera directly or act like he’s not there—Liu manages to touch upon issues both specific and universal. That these stories are intensely personal to their subjects and yet ultimately unremarkable in their scope speaks to Minding the Gap’s portrayal of internal struggle and a desire for transcendence as inherent to the human condition.