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D: Bing Liu / 93m

With: Zack Mulligan, Keire Johnson, Bing Liu, Nina Bowgren, Kent Abernathy, Mengyue Bolen, Roberta Moore

in the city of Rockford, Illinois, three friends have grown up with a love of skateboarding that has kept them united in the face of personal tragedies, mutual family dysfunctions, and the trials of becoming adults along with all the expectations that come with that. Zack works as a roofer. He drinks a lot, spends as much time skateboarding as he can, and work aside, shows no sign of adopting any other responsibilities. That all changes when his girlfriend, Nina, becomes pregnant and they have a baby, Elliot. Keire is quieter, still living with his mother, Roberta, while trying to decide what he’s going to do with his life. He finds a job as a dish washer in a restaurant, but only seems truly happy when he’s skateboarding. Bing is a would-be movie maker, always filming his friends, and as time goes on, he begins to explore how they all feel about becoming “men”, while also examining what it means in today’s terms. Over the passage of time, Bing also learns that all three of them have been affected by events in their childhood, events that it appears none of them have fully, or even partly, dealt with…

If you’re thinking, “gee, skateboard movies seem to be all the rage these days”, what with this and Skate Kitchen and Mid90s (both 2018, and both worth watching) out there, then you’d only be half right, as the beauty of Bing Liu’s impressive documentary debut is that skateboarding is just the launching point for an extraordinarily perceptive, and moving, examination of issues such as domestic abuse, casual racism, and social and economic deprivation. Made over a period of twelve years, Liu captures those painful moments when he and his friends come face to face with the realisation that they have to step up and become the men they’re expected to be, but without any male guidance in each of their lives to help them. As the movie unfolds, Liu reveals that each of them have had to endure emotional and physical abuse as children, and all from their fathers or stepfathers. This has left each of them with issues that they are struggling to overcome, and Liu shows how well or how badly they cope with those issues, from the deterioration of Zack and Nina’s relationship and their eventual separation, to how the absence of Keire’s father from his life (he died when he was young) has left a void in Keire’s life, to how Bing’s mother, Mengyue, was (possibly) oblivious to the physical abuse that Bing suffered at the hands of her second husband.

Thanks to the closeness and the bonds shared by the three friends, Liu is able to get a number of candid admissions, and confessions, from Zack and Keire that might not have been possible if the movie had been made by an “outsider”. From these admissions and confessions, Liu is able to paint a subtly devastating portrait of compromised and misunderstood notions of manhood, as well as the social and familial backdrop that promotes these notions. As he delves deeper and deeper into this, he reveals how domestic abuse is something that one of his friends feels can be justified, while the other views the discipline he received when he was young in this offhand manner: “Well, they call it child abuse now, but…” (nothing further is said, there’s just a shrug). Violence is another recurring theme in the movie, and Liu expertly ties all these strands together to make a movie that is astonishing for its awareness of the depth of the problems it’s exploring, and the heartfelt sincerity with which the camera stays focused on the bad moments just as much as the good ones. For a first movie, this is powerful, enlightening, and disturbing at times, but always astonishing for the way in which Liu dissects such complex topics with precision and grace, and recognises that there aren’t any easy answers to the questions he raises.

Rating: 9/10 – there are a slew of tremendously good documentaries out there right now – Free Solo, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Three Identical Strangers (all 2018) to name but a few – but Minding the Gap is a seriously great documentary that stands in a league of its own; insightful and intimate on so many levels, and holding up a less than flattering mirror to the tattered social fabric of the American working class, Liu has crafted a moving and substantial movie that continues to resonate long after it’s over.