At their best, documentaries impart a potent sense of strangers’ complex lives—what it feels like to be them, residing in their homes and communities, dealing with their professional, familial and socio-economic circumstances, and wrestling with their emotions. That’s the power of Minding the Gap (in theaters and on Hulu on August 17), director Bing Liu’s film about himself and his two close friends, Zack and Keire, all of whom grew up in Rockford, Illinois, amidst violence, poverty and skateboarding. Conveying the various destructive forces and patterns that plagued their childhood and threaten to derail their journey to adulthood, it’s a raw portrait of trauma and catharsis, and an affecting example of how non-fiction cinema can be a vehicle for genuine empathy.
From an early age, Zack, Keire and Bing were bonded by skating. Zooming around their Rust Belt environs provided a euphoric escape from domestic situations that were volatile, if not outright scarring. Piano-scored sequences in which Bing’s camera rides behind his friends down parking garage ramps, and through largely empty streets—all as the skaters leap over sidewalk curbs, grind on railings, and race in-between street poles—impart an intense impression of the freedom they derive from their pastime. Which, in truth, is more of a full-time vocation, as it’s clear that the teenagers are less interested in school, or planning for their futures, than simply partaking in the one thing that provides them with joy.
“When you’re a kid, you just do. You just act,” says Zack, decrying the incessant calls he hears to “be a man.” Nonetheless, manhood is coming fast for these kids, and especially for Zack, who’s having a baby with his barely 21-year-old girlfriend Nina. Their relationship is as combustible as just about every other one found in Minding the Gap—a symptom of the fact (heard on a news radio report) that Rockford is rife with both unemployment and domestic violence. That’s born out by the tales of Zack, Keire and Bing, each of which involves abusive and/or absentee fathers. For Zack, fights were a recurring facet of adolescence. For Keire, a demanding dad was either MIA or showing him “tough love” (before passing away at a young age). And for Bing, a biological father who was never around was replaced by a stepfather who liked to viciously beat on him, his brother Kent, and his mother Mengyue.
In an upsetting interview, Bing confronts Mengyue about her decision to both marry her second husband and to keep him around for close to two decades, despite his penchant for brutality. Their teary exchange, in which Mengyue’s sorrowful “I don’t know what to say” speak volumes about the screwy psychological impact of domestic violence on its victims, is a centerpiece of hurt and resentment. It’s also, poignantly, an attempt by Bing to understand how such maltreatment took place, and continues to take place, when it so clearly does nothing but harm. That subject is at the heart of Minding the Gap, which comes to function as a personal—and at times autobiographical—quest to decipher why, year after year, generation after generation, young men and women are made to suffer by father figures. And, more importantly still, to learn how that cycle might be broken.
Save for a few key moments, Bing remains a behind-the-camera presence, choosing to maintain focus on Zack and Keire over the course of years (whose passage is relayed via their maturing faces and changing situations). In both their cases, the proverbial chickens have come home to roost. Zack and Keire’s youthful refusal to conform to parental expectations—regarding school, responsibility, and developing a roadmap that might lead to a career—has now resulted in their wholesale lack of preparation for their rapidly approaching twenties. Thus, long days are spent working as roofers (Zack) and dishwashers (Keire), with respites coming either from heavy drinking—especially in Zack’s case—or from skating around Rockford while Bing films their daredevil stunts. For Zack, though, most after-hours time is devoted to his young son Elliot, as well as fighting with Nina about who gets to have the night off from childcare.
Thanks to an incident recorded on a cell phone, Bing comes to believe that Zack may be raising his hand to Nina. In his subsequent efforts to determine the truth behind this matter, and how to address it with his friend, Minding the Gap becomes a snapshot of chronic chaos and cruelty—which is further emphasized by a stunning interview with Keire’s mother Roberta during which her new boyfriend scolds her, just off-camera, to hurry up and finish because her “five minutes” are almost up. Bing doesn’t have to look hard to find dysfunction, misery and alienation; it’s everywhere, including in his own group of friends, where Keire’s status as the crew’s lone African-American member—addressed in a handful of brief but telling scenes, including one in which he can barely stomach his friends watching a racist viral video—only exacerbates his feelings of dislocation.
From snapshots of a young Keire gasping with rage over an altercation with another skater, to Zack’s late confession about his behavior toward Nina—who tries to provide stability for Elliot by moving in with her aunt and uncle—Minding the Gap is a case study in the weighty role played by nurture, and the difficulty of overcoming the negative lessons passed down by lousy parents. Driven by a desire to face, process and transcend the pain of the past, Bing’s film illustrates how much of who we are comes from what we see and experience at an early age, and how you can’t force people to grow up—ultimately, that’s something that has to come from within.
And yet no matter how often this documentary plays like a lament, there’s hope to be found in Zack, Keire and Bing’s stories—born, in part, from their discovery that, by looking at themselves through their director-friend’s camera lens, they can achieve a measure of self-awareness that leads to change. “This Device Cures Heartache” reads Keire’s skateboard. So too, it appears, does this movie.