Watching the young skateboarders in Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap, which follows three young men as they warily make their way from adolescence into adulthood, you sometimes get the feeling they’ve learned the secret of defying gravity. As Bing follows his childhood friends Zack and Keire through the deserted-seeming streets of Rockford, Illinois, a declining Rust Belt town the Wall Street Journal called “the underwater mortgage capital of America,” his camera feels like it’s floating alongside them, and the undulating score (from composers Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero) drowns out the familiar grind of wheels on asphalt. But Bing isn’t interested in how his subjects fly so much as how they land. With editor Joshua Altman, he cuts the sequence so the sound of their boards crashing back to earth takes on a rhythm of its own, a periodic slap-slap-slap that grows faster and faster until Keire’s board finally snaps with a sickening crack. The camera moves in to read the handwritten legend on his now-broken skateboard: “This device cures heartache.”
There’s a lot of heartache to cure. The story picks up in earnest as Zack, then 23, is dealing with the birth of his first child, an event for which both he and his girlfriend, Nina, seem utterly unprepared. Keire, then 17, is acclimating to his first job, scrubbing pots and lugging trash, while contemplating the dim prospects for a young black man in what for years has been ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in the country. And behind the camera, although we don’t see much of him at first, Bing is figuring out how to negotiate his relationship to them, something between a concerned observer and an on-call therapist. At one point, Zack pulls on a cigarette as he asks Bing what kind of shot he’s filming: “the kind where I pretend you’re not there, or the other kind?”
Bing’s answer to his friend is classically noninterventionist: In essence, he tells Zack, do whatever you want. But the question, and the filmmaker, come increasingly to the fore as Minding the Gap becomes less a story about the ad hoc fraternity of skateboarders and more about the fractured home life that sends them looking for a surrogate family. (Like the Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens, it’s in part the story of the evolving relationship between the camera and its subjects, and the point past which eliding the presence of the person behind the lens goes from sleight of hand to outright misrepresentation.) What Zack, Keire, and Liu have in common isn’t just a fondness for ollies and kick flips: They were all raised by violent men who took their anger at the world out on the children they were supposed to protect. Bing, presumably knowing at least some of the answer, asks Keire on camera how his father disciplined him. Keire laughs tightly as he reflects on his not-too-distant childhood: “I guess they call it child abuse now.”
Given the way we see Zack, who sporadically works as a roofer, and Nina yelling at each other over her picking up extra waitressing shifts that leave him at home alone with their child, there’s a sickening sense of inevitability to the way the cycle of abuse reasserts itself in their relationship, and the way Bing deals with it is neither easy nor comfortable. He talks to Nina on her own about one particularly brutal incident, but he shies away from confronting Zack directly, although he eventually asks what happened to prompt the video of Nina threatening to kill him that Zack and a buddy seem fond of sharing. But the incidents, and the way Zack and Nina drift together and apart during several years of filming, prompt Bing to revisit his own family life, especially his relationship with his mother, and to bring himself into the frame rather than lurking just outside it.
Repairing his relationship with his late father is beyond Keire’s control. But as he gets further into adulthood, he grows more sympathetic to, if not precisely understanding of, his father’s attempts to harden him to a world that will treat him harshly. Early on, he describes being pulled over by the cops and having a gun pointed at him, for no reason other than his race, but later, he says that the additional obstacles keep him from being distracted by some of the petty concerns that sidetrack his white friends. “Being black is cool,” Keire says, “because you get a chance to prove people wrong every day.”
Minding the Gap began life as a straightforward skate video, but like its subjects, the film seems to mature as it goes (and, like them, it sometimes falls short). Bing doesn’t push for sweeping statements or sociological conclusions; the snatches of reported voice-over we hear establishing Rockford’s economic woes are there to enlighten the lives of its characters rather than to turn them into case studies. As Keire and Zack grow into manhood, the movie periodically drops in images of billboards advertising solutions to the problem of being a parent or child: “It’s 3 p.m.—Where Are Your Kids?” But we’re left with the sense that they’re essentially fumbling around in the dark, and some of them are still looking for the switch.