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‘Minding the Gap’ is a visceral, vibrant coming-of-age documentary

| Thursday, September 13, 2018

Lina Domenella | The Observer

From its first frame, Bing Liu’s documentary “Minding the Gap,” available to stream on Hulu, feels vitally, viscerally alive. We glide along with skateboarding kids, skid around corners, duck parking lot arms. Sunshine, fading, yet still vibrant, envelopes the screen. Wide, joyful smiles cover the faces of our subjects. There is life and joy and potential in these boys. “Minding the Gap” shows us how the world tries to snuff that out.

“Minding the Gap” follows Keire and Zack of Rockford, Illinois, Liu’s depressed hometown with few prospects, from boyhood through start-and-stop bursts of maturity. While they navigate this confusing, near hopeless world, the film explores intergenerational abuse, trauma and identity. But “Minding the Gap” is phenomenal because of Liu’s light touch, the way he stretches sun-dappled moments into eternity and skips across time’s surface in a single smash cut. Keire and Zack might not be typical documentary subjects; neither is famous or particularly exceptional in success or struggle. But they are wildly charismatic, introspective and human. It is through Liu that their lives become larger.

A few vibrantly youthful skateboarding montages, complete with requisite fish-eye distortions, rush by. Liu’s roving camera economically sets up his Eden, a safe haven for Keire and Zack from their dysfunctional homes. Keire, a black perpetually-smiling teenager, and Zack, a white father-to-be in his twenties, find themselves on the brink of adulthood, trapped in a town with few promises for the future. More frighteningly, both suffered abuse at the hands of their fathers, as did Liu, a subject in his own right, appearing on camera for a harrowing interview with his mother.

What Liu manages to capture is an involving snapshot of cultural forces much larger than Rockford. Masculinity is his subject of interest, and how boys like Keire and Zack, inundated with toxic examples of it, begin to construct some version of masculinity for themselves. And Liu is brilliant with his narrative. When an allegation of abuse arises, Liu spends more time with the abused than the abuser, unlike most of our media. When Keire’s white friends spit racial epithets, Liu focuses on Keire. These choices might seem small, but they aren’t. These choices focus on the story we need to see. America’s structural inequalities based on gender, race and class will not disappear overnight, and this simple skateboarding documentary admirably endeavors into the tempest. Impressively, Liu never blinks in the face of these challenges; the film only grows more nuanced and truthful with every perfectly calibrated decision.

More than anything, “Minding the Gap” is a sensitively rendered coming-of-age film, comparable to Richard Linklater’s masterful “Boyhood.” Much like Linklater, Liu prefers small moments of grace and heartbreak to incident-driven drama. We learn to love Keire not because of any heroic act but because of the way he smiles after falling off his skateboard, the footage of him playing with young cousins. Liu gives trauma and pain space to breathe, allows it to linger and haunt the frames of carefree skate park footage. This is compelling slice-of-life filmmaking, spooling across years yet expertly edited into a tight 93 minutes.

I am not normally a documentary fan, but “Minding the Gap” is a revelation. It is breathtakingly beautiful, understated and complex. It is emotionally involving, sometimes painful, yet ultimately optimistic. Only the best cinema can reveal humanity and generate empathy as effortlessly. Bing Liu is a fresh, exciting documentarian whose filmmaking feels as vibrant and youthful as his subjects. And “Minding the Gap” is among the best documentaries I have seen.

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