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With: Keire Johnson, Zack Mulligan, Bing Liu
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Bing Liu
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 93
Date: 08/16/2018

Minding the Gap (2018)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Across the Board

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of the year's great, small treasures, Bing Liu's extraordinary documentary Minding the Gap is like a deluxe skateboarding video, but it's also so much more.

Minding the Gap, which opens Friday at the Roxie Cinema, and begins streaming the same day on Hulu, was filmed over an astonishing 12 years in Rockford, IL. (One critic has already called it the Boyhood of skate videos.)

Liu, who frequently appears on camera, is just one of a trio of friends who found solace from their troubled home lives in their friendships and in skating.

The friends are seen growing older onscreen, aging from gawky adolescents to older teens and adults in their early 20s.

One story, Zack's, takes a turn when his girlfriend Nina becomes pregnant and they attempt to raise the child, quickly beginning to argue over their workload and which of them deserves a break. (The film gets credit for giving Nina her own voice as well, and not just casting her as a foil for Zack.)

Liu himself is bold enough to interview his mother about her former relationship with the man who helped raise Liu and his brother, and who abused them when they were kids.

Meanwhile, Keire's struggle takes a more interior turn as he deals with the death of his father and ponders his own identity as an African-American in Rockford.

The film's brilliant use of locations — a burned-out, crumbling rust-belt town filled with ironically optimistic billboards — amazingly underlines its overall mix of hope and hopelessness.

But Minding the Gap isn't just about suffering. These kids persevere. The fluid, exhilarating staking sequences make them seem like superheroes, zooming in an around concrete structures as if not even touching the ground.

This alone is a good argument for seeing the film on the Roxie's big screen; their skating is not just about fun, but about finding a reason to go on.

One skateboard has "This device cures heartbreak" scrawled on it, and, watching these subjects, the phrase feels achingly true.

Far from a standard talking-head doc, Minding the Gap gets to the core, revealing pain, love, hope, despair, and other complex matters in a bracingly up-front way.

Over the years, Liu's camera has become such an ingrained part of their lives — and they appear to trust one another so implicitly — that nothing is held back. There are no protective guards, and everyone is allowed to be flawed.

The construction of what must have been mountains of raw footage, cannily aided by editor Josh Altman, raises the film to something beyond a mere home movie.

By separating out individual storylines and following them through years, the film traces maturing relationships. Friends go from juvenile teasing and bragging to trusting one another with their feelings.

It's a portrait of what can be termed "toxic masculinity," and of men learning to become themselves in an atmosphere of judgment and stern expectations, as well as violence and ignorance.

Liu's clever title also refers to the "gaps" between generations, men and women, etc, as well as recalling what he calls "urban movement" (it's named after the famous signs on the platforms of the London tube).

The film was executive produced by Steve James, whose legendary Hoop Dreams has much of the same vibe. Yet, minus that 1994 film's competitive aspect, and its goal-oriented drive, Minding the Gap seems even more intimate, even more existential.

It's a great film, one that understands where we come from and how we cope, and still makes room to ask: where do we go from here?

In 2020, the Criterion Collection added this film to their library with a new DVD and Blu-ray release. It features a nicely upgraded picture and sound, with optional subtitles, and everything feels smooth. A plethora of bonuses include two commentary tracks (one by Liu by himself and one with Liu, Keire, and Zack), several new interviews and conversations featuring Nina, producers Gordon Quinn and Diane Quon, and pro skateboarder Tony Hawk (a fan of the film), about 20 minutes of deleted scenes, a trailer, and a 2010 short film by Liu (about 23 minutes). Critic Jay Caspian Kang provides a liner notes essay. Recommended.

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