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Even before Bing Liu became a film-maker, he clearly had a gift for spinning a story. This remarkable Oscar-nominated documentary portrait of Liu and two friends’ uncertain journey to manhood started life as the scrappy outlaw video that the then mid-teens Liu shot of his skateboarding buddies, Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan, grinding kerbs and wiping out on cracked asphalt. It’s footage that he would cut together “and make it look like the best time ever”, recalls one of his friends.
And maybe they were the best of times – the edited highlights in which Liu, Keire and Zack could briefly forget the bruising realities of growing up in abusive households in Rockford, Illinois. “This device cures heartache,” is the message that Keire has scrawled on to his deck. It’s more than a skateboard; it’s an escape, an identity, a means of expression for a kid who hasn’t yet figured how to talk about the stuff that hurts.
Skateboarding is loaded with rich imagery that speaks to a certain kind of half-cooked masculinity. The joyous invulnerability that takes wing; the crashing fall back to earth; the laughter through pain because it’s easier to share a joke than admit that something aches inside. And there’s the repeated motif of Keire’s deliberately snapped skateboards – so enmeshed is skating in his identity, it feels like a kind of self-harm.
This is far more than a piece of teen nostalgia. At times it reminded me, in its scope and its low-key intimacy, of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Liu documents his friends’ fitful steps towards adulthood. He explores the way that violence can write itself into the DNA of a community, recurring in subsequent generations. Zack, ill-equipped to shoulder the responsibilities of fatherhood, keeps the party going and the beer flowing. His relationship with the mother of his son rapidly deteriorates. Keire, meanwhile, with his sweet, lopsided grin, muses on the loss of his disciplinarian father (“now you would call it child abuse”) and on his own racial identity. And, in an achingly intimate scene, Liu interviews his own mother about the stepfather whose savage rages sent the teenaged Liu looking for another family in the skate parks of America’s blighted rust belt.
Source: The Guardian
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