Film Review: Minding the GapExecutive produced by Steve James, this is an unpredictable, twisty character study.
As cinematographer on Minding the Gap, Bing Liu follows his longtime friends as they skateboard through the frequently abandoned streets, parks and parking lots of Rockford, Illinois. When they weave, he weaves. When they leap a curb, he catches air, too. When they take a corner too tight, he teeters precariously. The camerawork feels free and improvisational, but never thoughtless and unstudied.
The same traits carry over to Liu's work as director, co-editor and co-star in Minding the Gap, which premiered as part of the U.S. Documentary competition at Sundance and marks an audacious feature debut on all levels.
Minding the Gapstarts out as one story, suggesting one set of character arcs, and then flows in unexpected directions and underlines new sets of themes, without ever feeling haphazard or ill-considered.
Liu had been filming his friends and their skateboarding antics for years, capturing every spectacular stunt, every scary face-plant, and hours and hours of boys-will-be-boys banter and bickering. The friends are at a transitional point, especially fun-loving Zack, who finds himself facing adulthood in unexpected ways when his girlfriend Nina gets pregnant. Suddenly, Zack is forced to go from boy to man—hence a title that calls to mind the London subway system more than anything else for me—without any positive role models in a city with few job prospects and a rapidly dwindling population. After the death of his father, Keire is pondering his own place on the cusp of manhood, feeling trapped in Rockford and pondering his African-American identity in a group of white friends.
"Skateboarding is more of a family than my family," one of the friends says, and that's the documentary that Minding the Gap looks like it's going to be. Think Dogtown and Z-Boys if the subjects never became famous.
That, however, is not where the story takes Liu. Zack, Keire and Liu all come from backgrounds that blur the line between discipline and abuse, and they're about to confront their pasts and face the possibility that there are cycles that they're doomed to repeat. Liu is in a unique position because he's become almost a priest hearing confessions, forcing him to ponder the line between dispassionate filmmaker and concerned friend, while also looking for the right opportunity to get his mother on camera for a talk they've never had about their unspoken family secrets.
The words "This device cures heartbreak" are scrawled on Keire's skateboard, but the certainty that a recreational activity will be able to hold these not-quite-men together and protect them becomes increasingly strained as the years pass.
Minding the Gapwas executive produced by Steve James, and although it's clearly and exclusively Bing Liu's story, the structure is reminiscent of films like Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters. As the characters age and their own perspectives shift, the documentary follows their insights to unexpected places. Because Liu is so much a part of the whole narrative, these shifts feel organic.
He's constantly having to re-examine his own feelings for Zack's behavior, as Zack goes from comically in-over-his-head to increasingly dependent. So we re-evaluate, too. He's gaining new understanding and respect for Keire, the youngest of the group. Nina starts basically as the friend's baby mama, equally or possibly more unprepared for newfound responsibilities, but becomes a character in her own right, the necessary female voice in a story of generational toxic masculinity. When Liu talks to Nina, we see the blueprints for that talk with his mother, a perspective he's somehow never had before into the dynamic in which he was raised and how easy it is to perpetuate certain cycles. And sometimes Liu isn't doing the right thing, or he isn't clear what the right thing is, and he never imposes an editor's revisionist history to make him look better or more sure of himself than he was.
Minding the Gapis also a portrait of down-on-its-luck Rockford, which had a ghost-town feel at times. News headlines warn us about unemployment and a population exodus and also position the story in a community epidemic of violence in general and, specifically, domestic violence. It's not a condemnation of the city, despite its lack of opportunities. One thing I love about Liu's treatment of Rockford is how roadside billboards touting the likes of the Boys & Girls Club or a chiropractor treating skateboard injuries seem to be having dialogue with the characters, even if they're unaware.
Liu's immediate background was in cinematography, and the showiest moments are the skating scenes, which have an energy all their own. Equally impressive is the way he and co-editor Joshua Altman find character beats in what I can only assume was a vast repository of skating footage. Keire and Zack's reactions to a failed trick or to pulling off a big stunt often say more than their interviews. That wealth of footage also sets up emotional now-and-then contrasts as the stories move forward, the ironies of hopeful or ambitious youth and whatnot.
Minding the Gap doesn't set itself up as an apology or justification for cycles of male misbehavior, just as an insightful glimpse, with beats of ominous disappointment and exhilarating optimism. Liu was also at Sundance this year as DP and episodic director on James' Starz series “America to Me.” This edition of the festival marked him as a storyteller to watch.--The Hollywood Reporter