Skateboarding is currently having a vibrant cinematic renaissance. Between Crystal Moselle’s loveable Skate Kitchen — about an all-girl skate crew cruising around NYC — and Jonah Hill’s heartfelt directorial debut Mid90s, in cinemas this month, the skate-kid-coming-of-age story is alive and kickflipping. In its opening scenes, Bing Liu’s Oscar-nominated documentary Minding The Gap plays like a factual companion piece and successor to those recent outings — Zack and Keire (and Bing himself, who sometimes appears in front of the camera) are longtime skating buddies, still using the former industrial city of Rockford, Illinois as their playground. As with Moselle and Hill’s protagonists, skating is less a hobby than a full-blown lifestyle. “Skateboarding is more of a family than my family,” says Keire, who uses his board as an outlet for his mental health.
The trio aren’t rebellious teens anymore, though — true adulthood is encroaching. Keire abandons a proposed rooftop skate jaunt for being too dangerous, Bing has swapped his fisheye lens skate-vid kit for professional filmmaking gear, and Zack is preparing for his girlfriend, Nina, to have their baby. Liu — who also serves as cinematographer — shoots skate footage with gorgeous clarity in glorious wide shots that depict the total freedom that a four-wheeled board offers. But skating soon takes a backseat as Minding The Gap becomes something else altogether: an exploration of masculinity, fatherhood, and generational trauma in middle America. Keire is still coming to terms with the sudden passing of his dad, Zack’s relationship deteriorates in the aftermath of his son’s arrival, and Bing remains haunted by the domestic violence he suffered at the hands of his step-father.
Bing Liu captures an intimacy and internal conflict that's rare.
What follows are candid conversations and considered reflections on race, privilege and abuse as the three men continue to mature. Keire becomes more keenly aware of his identity as a black man — when he buys a car, he keeps his driving licence on the dashboard to avoid reaching for his pocket if pulled over by the police. Meanwhile, Liu interviews his own mother and younger half-brother to create an open dialogue on his childhood beatings. And when Zack’s stresses drive him towards alcohol — and other more bleakly destructive actions — Liu implicates himself in the unfolding action, documenting his own role in ultimately confronting his friend. In keeping the lens on his own friendship group, he captures an intimacy and internal conflict that’s rare, emotional and captivating, depicting the currents the trio are drifting towards and fighting against from the inside.
In its tight 93-minute runtime, Minding The Gap documents the push and pull between the desire to retreat into a prolonged adolescence and the need to grow up in order to avoid familiar patterns. What begins as a skateboarding film is really about being old enough to reflect on childhood experience, and understand how it informs adulthood. An impressive trick from a skater boy.