Throughout Bing Liu’s remarkable documentary “Minding the Gap,” a tale of escapist skateboarding and crashing into adulthood, there are occasional cutaway glimpses of scuffed railings around Rockford, Illinois, the economically depressed Rust Belt city where the three young men in Liu’s sights (which include himself) grew up. Those acrobatic grinds skateboarders perform can leave marks, obviously, but then so do turbulent childhoods.
Filmed over many years, during which Liu’s longtime passion for dynamic, fluid skate cinematography morphed into assembling a “Boyhood”-esque meditation on his board-proficient subjects’ entire lives, “Minding the Gap” (premiering theatrically and on Hulu) announces a confident new voice in personal non-fiction.
What starts as a raucous celebration of youthful freedom — with an exhilarating montage of his key skaters start on a building rooftop, down the ramps of a parking garage, and into the coast-able sloped streets of Rockport — consciously expands to cover the bonds of friendship, racial identity, the hard slog of being responsible, and the generational after-effects of trauma.
We meet up with stringy-haired Zack at 23, just as he’s about to become a dad with his 21-year-old girlfriend Nina. A sometime roofing worker and party-hearty bro with a dangerous smile, he seems ill-prepared for fatherhood: rarely seen without a beer in his hand, Zack quickly buckles under the strain of shared parenting duties (made harder by off-and-on employment), allowing his relationship to Nina to descend into acrimony. What once seemed comically fun-loving about his gift-for-gab immaturity soon feels like a defensive posture hiding a boy-man with real problems.
Zack’s friend Keire, meanwhile, a kind-eyed teenager with an awkward laugh, is six years younger, and often the only black kid in a crew of white boys. Video of Keire at 11 years of age, responding to a bully by determinedly destroying the boy’s skateboard, starts to make sense when you watch him at 17 and beyond; under a camera-wielding Liu’s friendly inquiries, he talks about his father, an abusive disciplinarian whose death Keire hasn’t yet processed. Keire’s own skateboard is inscribed with the words “This device cures heartache,” which gives you some idea of how fragile his soul is as he maneuvers into first jobs, asserting his identity, and taking his future seriously.
It’s when Liu, with halting reluctance, turns the camera on himself about his brutal upbringing that the darkest binding theme of “Minding the Gap” emerges: corrosive, violent masculinity. A tour of Liu’s childhood home with his half-brother Kent reveals memories of Kent hearing Liu through the walls, screaming under his stepdad’s beatings. It’s a testament to the movie’s ultimately forgiving power that even its most raw, questionable encounter — an arranged, halting interview with Liu’s broken-looking mother Mengyne designed to put her on the spot about the monstrous man she married — ultimately bypasses any unintended vengefulness to expose the tragic thinking behind a lonely woman’s consequential decision.
Elsewhere, Liu’s focus on Nina as a young mom increasingly exasperated with Zack’s irresponsibility brings a welcome female angle to the interwoven narrative of male anxiety. By treating Nina as a figure worthy of equal attention, and eventually as someone with her own story to tell about violence, the movie achieves a rarefied sensitivity about hearing all sides, even when it comes to the filmmaker’s own role in drawing out intimacies, be they from strangers or friends.
“Minding the Gap,” which is brilliantly edited by Liu and Joshua Altman, has a floating, grab-bag style that collapses the time frame into a kind of momentum-driven arc, but while the pieces are often bite-sized, and not always delineated by a year or person’s age, the collage has a distinctive chronological feel. The growing-up may not be happening at any given time, but you can sense the passage of something, and it makes you sit up; the movie’s unseen clock seems to signify not just breakthroughs but also missed opportunities, and it makes for all kinds of emotional resonance.
It’s as if Liu is after a poetic rendering of time that keeps the footage of anarchic adolescence, and the skateboarding digressions, ever near the scenes of job drudgery, nomadic living, and, in Zack’s case, alcohol-fueled revelry that feels ever more self-destructive. And then, after a while, you find yourself watching these lives the way you would a skateboarder in full flight, cataloguing the sense of balance displayed: Will they make that move work? Will they fall? And when they do, will they smile, get up, and try again, or fling something in anger?