When Bing Liu first started shooting footage for what became his debut documentary feature Minding the Gap, there’s no way he could have known what he would end up with. At first he was just making some cool skateboarding videos with his friends Keire and Zack, and along the way he documented the painful process of growing up, for people who may seem like carefree young skaters on the surface, but whose lives are full of deep trauma—which is often the reason that they find escape in skating. Liu himself is one of those people, and while the movie focuses more substantially on Keire and Zack, Liu eventually reveals as much about his own background as he does about his two friends.
Even aside from their volatile situations at home, all three friends are caught in the economic downturn of their hometown of Rockford, Illinois, where opportunities are scarce for anyone, regardless of home life. Liu captures the moment after high school (or dropping out of high school) when Keire and Zack are facing looming adulthood and have no idea how to tackle it. For Zack, that comes along with parenthood, as he’s the father of a child with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Nina, and it’s clear that neither of them is prepared to be a parent. As the movie goes on, Nina becomes an increasingly important subject, especially given her fraught relationship with Zack, which ends up mirroring the abuse that Zack experienced in his own home growing up.
The impact of toxic masculinity and how it perpetuates the cycle of abuse emerges as the movie’s central theme, and Liu skillfully transitions from the early lighthearted skateboarding scenes to the much heavier personal revelations, without ever losing the thread of skating as a pure, joyous experience. He’s able to achieve the kind of intimacy with his subjects that can only come from lifelong friendships, eventually rooting out painful truths through long, involved conversations.
As Zack develops almost into the villain of the movie, he tends to overshadows Keire, who finds much more success in getting his life together. And Liu keeps his own story in the background much of the time, until he gets to a series of cathartic interviews between him and his mother, in which he confronts the abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepfather. Even if the balance sometimes feels a bit off, the editing (by Liu and Joshua Altman) is graceful and fluid, distilling the massive amount of footage amassed over a period of many years into a story that ebbs and flows with emotional power.
That also means that the timeline, in which years may pass between scenes (and then shift back again), is at times confusing, and following the linear trajectory of the subjects’ lives is a little tough. But Liu conveys the deeper, inner truth of the people he follows, sometimes simply by watching them skate around in silence (as much as anything, he’s a fantastic cinematographer of skateboarding). The project started with skateboarding, and that’s where its heart remains, all the way to the end.