Hard on the heels of the just-released Skate Kitchen, director Bing Liu’s emotionally pulverizing, Sundance award-winning documentary Minding the Gap examines the hardships of growing up through the daredevil lens of skateboarding. In both of these films (but especially Liu’s), skateboarding is more than just a knee-shredding extreme sport pastime, it’s a metaphor for freedom and escape – a spiritual oasis that has the power to block out the pain and pressures of the outside world during the rawest and most confusing years in one’s life. On a board, however, life briefly makes sense.
Liu grew up with his mother and an abusive stepfather in Rockford, Illinois – an economically depressed rust-belt town. And Minding the Gap turns out to be as much his story as those of the two hard-luck teens he follows over the better part of a decade, Zack and Keire. After all, they weren’t just his subjects, but also his friends – friends whose troubled home lives were closer to his own than he ever let on.
The first, Zack, is a hard-drinking, hard-smoking live wire who’s reminiscent of a shaggier, millennial Marlon Brando in The Wild One. You half expect Liu to ask from behind his handheld camera, “Hey, Zack, what are you rebelling against?” And for Zack to fire back: “What’ve you got?” Over the years, we see Zack half-try and fail to make a relationship with his girlfriend, Nina, work. But he’s too irresponsible – even after they have a child together.
The second, Keire, is an African-American whose father passed away before he could make their relationship right. His sweet smile and giddy laugh belie an inner hurt that only seems to heal when he’s finding fleeting glimmers of grace on the back of his skateboard. It’s the only he time he doesn’t have to think about his life.
The pair’s passion for skateboarding is infectious even if you don’t know the difference between an ollie and a kickflip. And the tricks they perform are like weightless, gravity-defying illusions. But when they’re not skating, the harsh realities of their lives press down on them like a vise. Together, through their shared passion, the two young men and their ever-present director/confessor form a sort of alternative family. Eventually, though, even that can’t hold.
Minding the Gap is about youthful escapism, personal expression, and the cold realization that you can’t stay a kid forever. It’s heartbreaking, raw, and true. But it never veers into exploitation or becomes oppressively maudlin. How could it when each new day holds the promise of another blissful opportunity to skate and block out the ugliness of the real world. A-