For skateboarders, their sport means so much more than rolling around on a nicely shaped plank and four urethane wheels. It’s a way of life, a metaphorical act, an artistic endeavor, radical self-expression; it’s a survival mechanism, a way to create order in a world that doesn’t always make sense. Whatever significance a particular individual attaches to the act, it goes so far beyond kickflips and board slides, past concrete banks and handrails.
Bing Liu’s documentary, Minding the Gap, encompasses all of this, and so much more. He filmed himself and his friends, Zack and Kiere, over the course of ten years. The footage shows them honing their chops, but also growing up in a dying, hardscrabble rust-belt town. Playing out like a real-life Boyhood, we watch these kids grow up and bear witness to their evolution. Along the way, they grapple with race and masculinity, struggle to make ends meet and survive on a daily basis, and try to escape seemingly inescapable cycles of violence and abuse. It’s as earnest and honest and heartfelt a film as I’ve seen in a long time, and it’s all wrapped up and framed as a love letter to skateboarding.
Maybe Minding the Gap hits me more than other people because I more or less was these kids. I grew up in a blue collar, working class town in the midst of an economic downturn—though not to this degree—and wiled away countless hours rolling around on concrete as a mechanism for avoiding other realities. My main form of recreation was trespassing for fun and entertainment. We were bored and rebellious and looking for freedom and expression and things we couldn’t even put names on.
My friends and I used skateboarding the same way these kids do. If things sucked, we could always go skate and somehow that made it a little better. It didn’t fix anything, but it helped; there’s a Zen and clarity and perspective to be found. When things were awesome, we did the same thing. It was how we celebrated and how we mourned, how we reveled and how we commiserated. It’s what you do when you feel good and you’re soaring, it’s what you do when you feel like shit and you’re drowning. There’s a shot of one of Kiere’s decks, on the griptape he wrote, “this device cures heartbreak,” and its truth is deafening. There’s a reason every skateboarding movie, including this one, has an angry, cathartic skate montage. Sometimes you go skate because it’s the only thing you can do.
Skateboarding is a sport or passion or way of life—whatever you call it, however you define it, whatever it means to you, it’s all of those things—that attracts outsiders, people who don’t fit, or don’t want to fit, anywhere else. I’ve seen it time and again, kids form their own packs, their own families, which is precisely how Bing, Kiere, and Zack operate. All three come from fucked up families where they dealt with a significant level of abuse. As Bing, talking to Kiere from behind the camera, says, “I’m making this film because I saw myself in your story.”
These kids form a bond as a survival mechanism, and over the course of Minding the Gap, we watch their stories unfold. And it’s not always easy. Kiere struggles with his racial identity, with what it means to be black, both in the larger society and especially in a subculture that’s predominantly white, where his friends don’t necessarily understand what he’s been through and where he’s coming from. Always smiling and laughing, in one moment he points out how he keeps his license, registration, and proof of insurance on his dashboard of his car, so he never has to reach for it and give a cop a reason to shoot him. With a dismissive chuckle, he says, “I can die real easily,” and it’s chilling.
Zack’s story can be difficult to watch. On one hand, he’s this charismatic goof, a rowdy kid looking for a good time. On the other, the disappointment with life weighs him down, feeling like he’s never done anything he wanted to do and never wanted to do anything he’s supposed to do. He has a kid at a young age, and with a volatile relationship, gets caught up in an ugly cycle of violence, domestic abuse, and alcoholism.
For the most part, Bing lives behind the camera—its own coping mechanism—though we hear his voice frequently. But at one point, he hands the camera off and interviews his mother about the abuse the two of them and his half-brother endured at the hands of his stepfather. I don’t know, I can’t even put into words how raw and visceral a moment it is.
Fathers and father figures and fatherhood form the traumatic core of Minding the Gap. Whether by their absence or presence, they leave a substantial stain on all three and color everything. Over the course of the film, Kiere grapples with his troubled relationship with his dad and comes to paradigm-changing realizations, comprehending his history in ways he never has before. For Zack, becoming a father, that notion and those responsibilities push him towards a breaking point. Fathers drive this entire picture.
Liu has a deft sense of narrative. I can’t imagine sifting through all of this, all of these years of film, to construct a story, let alone being this connected to the material and subjects. But he handles it masterfully and never flinches or pulls back from difficult beats even as he fights with his conflicting roles in the story—is he a friend who owes these people loyalty or is he a filmmaker who owes it to his film to ask questions that may damage relationships but serve the movie?
It’s an up and down journey for sure. We get joyous surges watching Kiere get his shit together and continue to make positive choices. But there are also crushing defeats, absolute suckerpunches, as Zack sinks deeper and deeper, until we’re not sure if he can come back, or if he wants to. And these aren’t characters on a page or someone pretending to be someone else, these are real people. I’ve seen these kids, I’ve known these kids, I’ve been these kids, and I’ve watched friends on these same paths.
Even though last time I stepped on a board—at 40 and in terrible shape—I blew up my knee, more than anything, Minding the Gap makes me want to skate. Cathartic and exhausting, beautiful and troubling, hopeful and despairing, heartfelt and heartbreaking, this calls to mind the best times—also some of the worst, to be honest—of setting out first thing, skateboard in hand and best friends in tow, just to see what adventures we’d find. Some of the highlights of my life revolve around sitting in an empty parking lot, rolling ankles, leaving skin imbedded in concrete, bullshitting with the people who meant most to me.
The beautiful thing about skateboarding is that it’s whatever the hell you want it to be, whatever you need it to be. It’s fun to roll around with your friends and thrilling to hurl yourself down a set of stairs; it gives you a reason to leave the house and a way to express yourself; it’s therapy, it’s metaphor, it’s screaming at the top of your lungs, “I’m fucking here.” Kiere puts it perfectly: “I get mad at skateboarding, a lot, but at the end of the day, I love it so much I can’t stay mad at it.” It hurts you, but you love it all the same.