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Minding the Gap
America, Growing Up
This week: check out a movie that’s been stuck in my mind since watching it. Having read some stellar reviews, I expected to enjoy this movie, but I wasn’t ready for how hard it would hit. If you’re a millennial who grew up in the midwest, this will speak to you. The film checks these two boxes for me and a surprise third box: Like the doc's subjects, I spent hundreds of hours skateboarding with friends in a small, depressed midwestern town. (Shout out to Danville, Indiana, a city with a motto that would be right at home on a horror movie poster: “A great place to spend an hour or a lifetime.”)
Speaking of horror movies, I’m excited to see Men later this week. Alex Garland is on my “ride-or-die” director’s list, and I’m generally a fan of big weird swings, so I’m excited to check it out. There has been some discourse™ around Garland’s bona fides in making a movie called “Men.” However, I think folks familiar with his track record (going back as far as writing the screenplay for 28 Days Later) will find that in this subject matter, he is adequately credentialed.
Three kids. Three skateboards. The American Midwest at the beginning of the 21st century. These are the players and setting of a documentary, Minding the Gap (2018), that serves as a coming-of-age snapshot for a significant cohort of Americans. From the earliest footage, the kids are mindful of who they are, who they want to be, and who they’re expected to be. Behind the camera is Bing Liu, filming what would be his first feature documentary. Liu was born in China and, at five years old, immigrated to America with his mother when his parents were divorced.
Like The Fast and the Furious, this is a film about family, specifically, the family you choose. While watching, I couldn’t help but feel thrown back into my adolescence; precisely the period of time when you know you’re not a kid anymore, but you’re also not entirely sure that you’re an adult yet. The film feels worth watching for this potent hit of nostalgia alone. However, what elevates the movie is the self-awareness that Liu brings to the frame; he knows when to roll the camera and where to point it. Further, the editing stitches multiple narratives from his subjects into a coherent thesis that I wasn’t expecting. Liu tells a story through his friends, Zack and Keire, that is simultaneously personal and relatable. Specific yet general.
Zack is trying to pass his GED. It’s tough for him, but he feels that it will allow him to get away from the back-breaking labor of roofing. Keire tells us about his late father, who would discipline him in what might today be called child abuse. Bing stays out of the way and gives his friends space and time to open up. The touch-and-go nature of the interviews makes their stories feel genuine and spontaneous in a format that could’ve easily felt inflated for a ‘student film.’ The careful hand of the young filmmaker astounds.
Punctuating many moments in the film is the way in which these young people find community and outlet; skateboarding. Keire, Zack, and Bing spend long hours navigating concrete and asphalt, searching for creative ways to challenge themselves and prove their abilities. The film's setting, Rockford, Illinois, is more than a midwestern backdrop. Depression, young flight, unemployment, drug abuse, and boredom challenge the residents of the small city. Rockford is a fully-fledged character working through its own issues. Missing from the picture is the semblance of anyone, be it a politician or a corporation, who seems to care. It’s important to consider what Liu leaves out of the frame as well as what is present.
The stories of Bing, Zack, and Keire gradually come into focus, and we begin to notice a trend: there are no fathers in the frame. These young men are figuring things out, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully, for themselves. At one point in the film, Keire’s mother is being interviewed by Liu and speaking to the camera. Liu, somewhat sheepishly, asks her about her new boyfriend. Awkward laughter ensues at the audacity of the question, possibly because of the youth of the person asking it. Think of the last time you were taken aback at the intelligence and curiosity of someone you may have previously thought of as a ‘child.’ Then we hear a voice offscreen: “Roberta, your five minutes are up.” Any trace of mirth leaves her face. Her boyfriend is just out of the frame, exerting his influence.
Time passes in a way that is reminiscent of the films of Richard Linklater; we realize we’re watching a story unfold over an extended period. It’s worth taking a second to appreciate the unlikeliness of this movie: that footage from a span of many years, in a small town in the midwest, by an unknown filmmaker would eventually coalesce into a soulful narrative depicting life so fully. America has many problems1 and many aspects of Minding the Gap could easily spin into case studies of our failings as a country. The film begins to zoom in on one of these issues: domestic abuse toward women.
At a time in our country when much work is being undertaken to strip rights from women, this movie shows us how far we would still have to go even without the backsliding. Responsible and mature men are almost entirely absent from the picture. In their place: women trying to support young men while trying to survive and young men struggling to break the cycle of trauma into which they were born.
The editing herein makes some brutal statements. At times I wondered about the health of Liu’s friendships, given his boldness in exposing their stories and the depths of some of their failings. At one point, Liu asks his friend, Zack, about his thoughts on hitting women. Zack’s answer is immediately juxtaposed with a woman very close to Liu. It will break your heart. Like the best filmmakers, Bing Liu has an ax to grind.
Midway through the film, Keire muses to the camera: “I just feel like if I stay here, I’m gonna get stuck here.” Minding the Gap knows that ‘here’ is more than a physical place. ‘Here’ is a state of mind. It’s a somber statement that is true for Keire, for his friends, for Rockford, and for America.
Minding the Gap
Directed by Bing Liu