Minding the Gap

Bing Liu’s Oscar nominated film is Boyhood in documentary form

If you had the chance to go back through adolescence to make different choices this time round, would you do it? Looking at Bing Liu’s intimate portrait of three young men (including the director himself) growing up in Rockford, Illinois, it hardly seems worth going through the stress all over again. Especially for anyone growing up in run down towns and cities that have seen better days. It’s one of many reasons why Minding the Gap is a story about escapism from the past, figuring out the present, and keeping a close eye on a fast-approaching future.

Liu’s film maps out like a documentary adaptation of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, taking in over a decade’s worth of footage. What began as a project about skateboarding culture gradually evolved into a closer study of the lives of then 16-year-old, Keire, and 23-year-old Zack. Liu manages to capture all of the hope and abandonment of youth, along with the realisation of dealing with the responsibilities of life, self-identity and handling complex relationship dynamics.

Keire, Zack and Liu have known each other since they were kids, spending hours together skateboarding around the city. It’s this sort of unfettered intimacy that allows Liu’s camera to fit in so naturally with their day-to-day lives. When we meet Zack he’s on the cusp of becoming a father with his girlfriend Nina. He works during the day as roofer but clocks off and heads to the skate park with a can of beer never far out of reach. Despite making a go of it once the baby is born, the young family of three quickly fall apart as its obvious Zack isn’t ready for fatherhood until he deals with his own issues.

While Keire is younger than Zack, there is a sense of maturity about him that may be a result of his tough upbringing. Despite his fragile awkwardness there is an anger inside that we see in old video footage, presumably shot by Liu. When speaking about his childhood he remembers his now deceased disciplinarian father and the treatment he received which would now be classed as “child abuse”. Over time we see Keire get his first job, hold it down and begin to grow, slowly starting to grasp what needs to be done to make something of himself in the world.

Lastly, there is Liu, who had never originally intended to include himself in the documentary. He peers back into the dark years of his own childhood and the violence he suffered at the hands of his father-in-law. His half-brother, Kent, remembers the blood-curdling screams he would hear through the walls as Liu was viciously beaten. Liu’s story builds towards a heartfelt conversation with his mother, Mengyne, sitting in front of the camera answering his questions. She breaks down when explaining the regret she now carries for the choices she made that impacted so heavily on both of their lives.

Nina’s life post-Zack is also brought into focus by Liu. She is forced to start again as a single mum and struggles to deal with Zack’s inability to manage his emotions. Accusations fly between the two but it soon becomes clear where the blame lies. The easy option for Liu would’ve been to have concentrate solely on his friends with Nina remaining on the peripheral. But her invaluable insight creates a new understanding about Zack that probably wouldn’t of been heard by relying solely on his perspective.

There is a fluidness to the way Liu has edited these three narratives together, with each moment small but incredibly impactful. While it’s hard to determine their ages at any one point, the minute changes are noticeable enough to follow their growth and increasing distance away from childhood. You are drawn directly into the ups and downs of their lives and the key experiences that will set the route ahead for the foreseeable future.

Skateboarding was Liu’s original focus when he started putting together ideas for the film that would become Minding the Gap. There is still plenty of superb skateboard footage that sees Keire, Zack and Liu playing around on their boards and coasting through the open, empty city in early morning. It’s a sport that gave a way out to three young men who have been honest enough to share the most sensitive parts of their inner lives. So while it’s a film about skateboarding, it’s also definitely not a film about skateboarding.

Minding the Gap opens in select cinemas and on March 22nd.

Steven Sheehan

Updated: Mar 19, 2019

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