It seems rather ironic that after years of Hollywood butchering skateboarding on screen, we got not just one, but two great films in 2018 that explored the subculture. But whereas Jonah Hill's directorial debut, Mid90s, got most of the praise — and rightfully so — Bing Liu's criminally underrated documentary (which thankfully scored an Oscar nomination), Minding the Gap, was equally important in erasing the tired notion that skateboarders are aimless and lack substance.
Minding the Gap follows two main characters over the course of four years — 23-year-old party-animal, Zack, and his 17-year old friend, Keire — who both live in Rockford, Illinois, a suburb just over 90 miles to the northwest of Chicago. Despite geography which suggests an idyllic, suburban existence, Rockford was deemed the fifth most dangerous city in America with 1,659 violent crimes per 100,000 residents.
There's also the presence of the filmmaker himself, Bing Liu — specifically as the narrative starts to shift from traditional skate footage, bottle rocket tag on the 4th of July, and an endless stream of PBR cans, into more substantial profiles on each man.
In one scene the phrase "this device cures heartache" can be seen scrawled on a skateboard. And thus begins an exploration into skateboarding that viewers haven't ever seen before.
Zack, Keire, and Bing all share a connection that is rooted in violence. Specifically, each grew up in toxic households where they reconciled that the beatings they endured from parents and step-parents stemmed from their non-conformative behavior often associated with skateboarding. It's almost like how someone reconciles with drinking too much: the next day there's going to be the consequence in the form of a hangover. For the three, the freedom on four wheels was to be enjoyed knowing that something unfortunate and inevitable was coming later.
At one point, Liu tells Keire on camera, "I was physically disciplined by my stepfather, and it didn’t make sense to me. And I saw myself in your own story.”
People who don't understand skateboarding often can't figure out how anyone can take pleasure in a sport/subculture with so many hard slams. Similarly, those who grew up in "normal" households can't come to grips with why parents inflict harm on their children. As such, Liu's film is both a love letter to skateboarding, and a ransom note to the abusers.
As Keire so eloquently puts it, "Skateboarding is more of a family than my family.”
For as much as one will take away from the film about domestic abuse, Minding the Gap is equally effective in making a statement about identity as well. First united through skateboarding and drinking, Zack, Keire, and Bing seem like best friends who will continue that way forever. But as the freedom from skateboarding erodes — due to Zack having a child with his girlfriend, Nina, and Keire getting a job and wanting more out of life than a mattress in Rockford — elements also begin to come into focus relating to substance abuse, and being black in America.
Zach recognizes that his self-destructive behavior is probably his way of skirting his responsibilities for taking care of his son, Elliot.
"You put on an act and you let that act become you. I fucking suck," he says, tall boy in hand, shirt blackened from a day working as a roofer.
Similarly, Keire has always kept his deceased father's sentiments in the back of his head that even though he hangs around with mostly white kids, he should never forget his racial identity. One gets the sense that it wasn't to be taken as a slight, but rather, as a warning of what life can be like for a black man in a city where cops are trying to curtail violence. This is further enforced as Keire talks about being held up at gunpoint during a random police stop, and the awkwardness one feels as he watches Zack and others enjoy a "funny" YouTube clip that uses the N-word on several occasions.
Finally still, Minding the Gap gives a voice to the female perspective which is often pushed to the periphery in skateboarding films like Kids and Mid90s. Specifically, Zack's girlfriend, Nina, find solace in escaping from her relationship to go live with her aunt and uncle.
“I was always something to someone, someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s significant other, someone’s mom; I never got a chance to figure myself out," she says.
When Liu turns the camera on his mother and confronts her about the abuse he endured at the hands of his stepfather, she can only impart the desire for her to change the past, while urging him to try and move forward and focus on the positives. As the viewer, you can't help but take away from the film that Liu feels guilty that he managed to overcome his abuse — while Zack and Keire have succumbed to it.
Minding the Gap's Best Documentary nomination at this year's Academy Awards is a good sign not only for quality filmmaking, but skateboarding as well. And while the subculture may be foreign to some, the universalities contained in Liu's feature are unmistakable.