Synopsis: Three young men bond together to escape volatile families in their Rust-Belt hometown. As they face adult responsibilities, unexpected revelations threaten their decade-long friendship.
Stars: Kiere Johnson, Bing Liu, Zack Mulligan
Director: Bing Liu
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: Part of the joy of a documentary film done right is getting an insider look into a world different from your own and gaining some knowledge into a unique human experience. Sometimes that world is on the other side of the globe and sometimes, like in Minding the Gap, that new understanding can be found just a few states over. The three men at the center of Minding the Gap feel like people I’ve known or could have grown up with; that is, Midwestern guys from blue collar families that don’t want to grow up to be like their parents. Finding solace and friendship in skateboarding culture, their lives may center around that thrill seeking rush of adrenaline but as they take on more adult roles not all make the transition to maturity with ease.
Filmmaker Bing Liu brings audiences into his life as well as the lives of his friends Kiere and Zack over several years as the three deal with personal struggles and set-backs. Each bring a different set of conflicts to the table. Liu’s childhood involves unresolved issues with his immigrant single mother that brought an abusive stepfather into his life, leaving lasting emotional scars that have never healed between parent and child. Losing his dad unexpectedly just as he is entering manhood, Kiere pushes down that pain as he tries to find a male role model to guide him through his formative years…and quickly realizes his core group of older friends aren’t much wiser than he is. Then there’s the charismatic Zack, raised in a tumultuous home by young parents who seems destined to repeat history with his own girlfriend and infant son.
When the film began, I sort of slumped in my seat because I was expecting it to go in a totally different direction. I assumed it would be more focused on the skateboarding and didn’t see the emotional heft of the movie that, looking back on it now, was hiding in plain sight. While there are terrifically filmed scenes of grit as various skateboarders bob and weave around downtown Rockford, IL like locomotives (creating enough tension that my palms started to sweat like they did in Free Solo), the skateboarding becomes the bright spot of the film to break away from the more emotionally taxing moments.
As he continues to peel away layers, it’s clear that Liu begins to discover things about himself and his friends he never considered when he started making the film. That’s what sets Minding the Gap apart from so many similar documentaries and what keeps your eyes glued to the screen, you just never know what turns the film will take next. It helps that Liu isn’t afraid to turn the camera around and direct the tough questions he asks of others to himself. Even at only 93 minutes, the movie gave me hints of Boyhood in that it truly shows its subjects growing right before our eyes. Where these people end up is so far from where they begin – it’s a remarkable achievement in documentary filmmaking.