The Oscar-nominated documentary “Minding the Gap” opens with hand-held footage of teenage boys surreptitiously scaling a building to skateboard on its roof. Except for the danger factor, it all looks innocent enough, but what soon becomes clear is that, for these boys – Keire Johnson, Zack Mulligan, and Bing Liu – skateboarding is more than just a lark. It’s a way of escaping from the extreme difficulties of their lives. All three endured physical abuse from their fathers or stepfathers. All grew up as close friends in recession-era Rockford, Ill., with one of the highest crime rates in the country.
As an amateur moviemaker, Liu began filming himself and his friends about 12 years ago. “Minding the Gap” reaches back to those beginnings but focuses on the last four years as these boys attempt to come to terms with their lives. Liu, whose first feature film this is, has stated that he doesn’t want people to perceive it as yet another skateboarding documentary. He needn’t have worried.
It’s a good thing that the film’s focus is so broad, since, speaking for myself, I loathe the clackety-boom of joyriding skateboarders oblivious to autos and pedestrians. The last thing I wanted to see was a movie celebrating these antics. But for the three boys, skateboarding clearly functions as a stay, however momentary, against chaos. (One of the skateboards has the inscription “This device cures heartache.”) And because of this, the gliding, swooping skateboarding sequences often carry a sense of liberation that is both kinesthetically and emotionally powerful.
Liu expends most of the film’s screen time on Keire and Zack. Keire is a black teenager who lives with his brother, who during the course of the film does jail time, as well as his widowed mother, Roberta. Zack, shown in his 20s for most of the movie, fled an abusive home when he was 16 and lives with his pregnant girlfriend, Nina. Both boys make it clear that they looked out for each other because no one else would.
Keire is the most outwardly conflicted of the two. He is almost always shown smiling broadly, even when he is recounting the beatings he endured from his father, who died relatively young. Throughout the movie, in a series of conversations with the mostly off-camera Bing, Keire tries to make sense of the patriarch who, despite everything, he still loves – or at least forgives. (A scene of Keire at his father’s gravesite is especially wrenching.) So much of “Minding the Gap” is about the disconnection between fathers and sons. You can hear Keire attempting to rationalize his father’s behavior as boot camp for making him “a man.” He recounts the cautionary words “You have a lot of white friends, but don’t forget that you’re black.” He says that at one point his father apologized to him for the pummelings, saying that’s how he himself was raised. Keire says to Bing, “They call it child abuse now.”
Zack, who also smiles almost nonstop for the cameras, is ultimately less self-searching than Keire. When we see him with Nina, awaiting their baby, he appears to be caring and congenial. Stuck in a roofing job, he aims to better himself. But the rifts in their relationship widen. Nina can’t abide his lackadaisical attitude once their baby boy is born, and eventually we find out from Bing’s interviews with Nina that he has been physically abusive with her.
One of the more compelling aspects of “Minding the Gap” is how Bing broaches this subject with Zack – who is shown almost all the time with a beer can in hand – without rupturing their friendship. In general, Liu is a tactful interviewer. In one of the most moving exchanges, Keire asks him why he bothered to film him at all, and Bing says, “I saw myself in your own story.” Keire, obviously deeply moved, responds, “That’s really cool.”
In the context of the entire film, Liu’s tactfulness makes his own life story seem disproportionately recessive. He interviews his mother, Mengyue, who clearly is uncomfortable with his questions, about the abuse he received from his stepfather. “Did you know he beat me?” he asks her. Her assent – she, too, was abused – is filled with woe. Liu’s own story is as compelling as the others’ stories, and yet it functions almost as a sidelight. The ambition of “Minding the Gap” – a full-scale portrait of abuse and forgiveness – is a bit beyond the reach of Liu. It may be that only a dramatic film artist could have done justice to this subject. But as a piece of cinematic self-therapy, fragmented though it is, it has few rivals. Grade: B+ (This movie is not rated.)