Minding the Gap
2018, NR, 93 min. Directed by Bing Liu.
REVIEWED By Danielle White, Fri., Aug. 17, 2018
This is a documentary about skateboarders; it is not a documentary about skateboarding. While some of the footage is worthy of a Thrasher video, the themes and characters run much deeper than any Jackass antics. The threads of this story are woven to create a picture of the struggling working class and all its woes: shit jobs, shut-offs from the electric company, depression, toxic masculinity, and, most especially, domestic abuse.
Director Bing Liu has been filming his skater friends since they were teenagers in Rockford, Ill., an area pretty hard hit by the recession. The two main characters in Minding the Gap are charismatic in their own ways: There’s Keire, the youngest, an endearing grown child open with his emotions, whether joy, anger, or sorrow; and Zach, the de facto leader of the group, who has a baby on the way with girlfriend Nina, who also has a pretty large role though she is not a skater. While the film focuses on three or so years of their inevitable march toward adulthood, the editors (Liu and Joshua Altman) have intercut old footage so smoothly that it would be nearly impossible to detect the transitions if it weren’t for the graininess, the fish-eye lens, and the fresh young (familiar) faces. Liu has served as a camera assistant, and his skills are on display here: There’s something inexplicably soothing about the wide shots of the boys rolling along, spiraling down the levels of a parking garage or swerving around city streets at sunset. The narrative meanders in a similar way during the first 30 minutes as Liu clearly struggles with whether or not he wants to insert himself in the movie (his stepfather used to beat him). His proximity to the material makes for some rather questionable directorial decisions (he sometimes frames people’s faces too closely), and he’s an unassertive presence behind the lens. There’s a scene where Zach asks him if he wants to act like Bing is there or isn’t, and Bing replies, “Just do whatever you want.” The way he speaks to his interview subjects has the calming tone of a therapist or counselor rather than the probing or investigative style we are used to in documentary filmmaking. Bing seems to be searching for answers or healing, but this is very much a beginning – as everyone is just puncturing the source of pain like a beer about to be shotgunned.
Suitably, the sound design is rather sparse: Some facts about Rockford are relayed through disembodied voices from news reports, and there’s a light score by Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero. But the closing epilogue, (a tearjerker – apologies to my office mates) set to the Mountain Goats’ “This Year,” is a fitting survivors’ song if there ever was one.