In a year of stellar documentaries (Won’t You Be My Neighbor, RBG, McQueen), Minding the Gap takes its place with the cream of the crop. In his debut feature, filmmaker Bing Liu started with 12 years of footage that he shot in his hometown of Rockford, Illinois, to trace the restless lives of his skateboarder buddies; what he ended with was a larger statement about the shifting definitions of what it means to be a man. Weaving sensational boys-on-the-board footage into the stories of his friends (and himself) as they try to negotiate the sharp turns and tumbles of their lives in a city on the skids, Liu creates an unforgettable film experience that will knock the wind out of you.
Meet no-worries Zack, who hits a brick wall of responsibility when his girlfriend Nina gets pregnant. Hang out with Keire, who gets pulled up short by the death of his father and the struggle to retain his identity as a black man in a world of white skaters. And then there’s Liu himself, juggling his role as a friend with his duties as an objective filmmaker, not to mention his own efforts to interview his mother about long-hidden family secrets.
Minding the Gap is loaded with drama as we watch these young men over the years, trying to skate into adulthood while dodging the male toxicity that often comes with the territory. Violence on the streets and at home is an integral part of their existence. And Liu, a natural-born cinematographer, lets his camera zig and zag as he follows his pals into an uncertain future. The exhilaration of the skateboarding scenes may lead you to believe that the risky sport is an escape. But the film sees it more as a lifeline, a discipline that just maybe can be applied to the their own harsh reality.
It’s no accident that this look at teens recalls the 1994 classic Hoop Dreams, since that basketball doc’s director, Steve James, served as an executive producer. But Liu goes his own way, using the conversations he recorded with his fellow skaters over the years as a counterpoint to the obstacle course of their lives on the board and off. This is film is about family, in the sense of a bond formed by these three boys — as the young man both behind and in front of the camera says, “to look out for each other, because no one else was looking out for us.”
The doc refuses to sweeten the pot through the sentimental view of hindsight, and no easy solutions are offered in a film that never ducks from the fact that the struggle continues for the flawed human beings on view. Keeping the rough edges in place makes this portrait of youth feel acutely intimate and thrillingly alive. At the Sundance Film Festival this past January, the film picked up the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Filmmaking. It’s that, for sure. You can’t wait to see what Liu is going to do next.