Just as you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs, it seems you can’t make a skateboard documentary without skinning a few knees. At some point in “Minding the Gap,” one loses count of the number of times the protagonists — three teenage skaters from Rockford, Ill., who grow up before our eyes in this “Boyhood”-like longitudinal documentary — must pick themselves up off the ground, their boards cracked, their palms bloody. What kind of fractured home life compels these young men to take to the streets, risking serious injury for the rush of freedom and illusion of control skating brings?
That’s not the kind of question one normally associates with skate films, which revel in daredevil stunts and nostalgic visions of teenage rebellion, but then, “Minding the Gap” is no ordinary entry in the genre. It was made possible because aspiring director Bing Liu was apparently always rolling — literally a camera on wheels — when he and his friends went out skating, amassing untold hours of amateur footage over the span of more than a dozen years. But it exists because it’s the movie Liu was born to make, the one he had to get off his chest before he could move on in his filmmaking career.
Lurking behind all that fancy maneuvering and adolescent angst is a young man consumed with the subject of domestic violence, a soft-spoken kid who internalized the fact that he was severely beaten by his stepdad, and who came to detect a pattern of dysfunctional father figures among his fellow skaters. That theme creeps up slow but profound in Liu’s film, which broadens to address such topics as class, race, alcoholism, and a terrifying physical rage that can explode behind closed doors. In the end, it’s the film’s perspective on abuse that proves the most powerful — addressing the prevalent, but under-scrutinized issue in such a way that directly grapples with its impact on subsequent generations.
At the center of this complex sociological quilt, Liu presents the illusion of three friends growing up in Rockford, Ill., who’ve bonded over their illicit hobby (Rockford has skate parks, though the kids seem to prefer flouting authority, riding in spaces where it’s not permitted) — although, astonishingly, the gang are seldom seen together. Liu skillfully encourages audiences to leap to the conclusion that they’re besties when in fact, they live in different cities for a significant portion of the filming. That’s not so much misleading as it is impressive, the truth disguised in a virtuosic feat of editing that jumps back and forth between its subjects’ lives with the dizzying agility of a professional skater (and which owes its goose-bump-inducing power in part to Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero’s swirling piano score).
Most charismatic of this colorblind trio is white kid Zack. An armchair philosopher with a beer or a joint always in reach, he left home at 16 and found himself expecting a child not long after. The upbeat beta male of the bunch, Keire, who is black, cares for his single mom and is saving money from his dishwashing job to skip town. His infectious smile masks a startling temper, clearly tied to his absentee father, which he takes out on inanimate objects — as when he smashes his skateboard, or that of a local bully. As for our fearless videographer, Chinese-American Liu is glimpsed only at the edge of the frame, or in blink-and-you-miss-it selfies, until quite late in the film, when he confronts his mom about his abusive upbringing.
In some documentaries, the filmmakers attempt to make themselves invisible. Despite Liu’s camera-shyness, he never pretends to be anything other than a part of the story, hitting his subjects with direct, deeply personal questions (“Have you and Nina ever tried just talking it out?” he asks after one of many painful arguments between Zack and his girlfriend). They in turn put their trust in him, speaking candidly, cursing frequently, and offering no-strings access to their lives — which turn ugly at times, as in an eye-opening he said/she said description of a domestic spat.
Liu’s there when Zack takes (and presumably fails) his GED test, documenting his plans to open an indoor skate park (and the devastating failure that follows). At one point, he captures Keire crying on camera, poignantly expressing what skating and his late father have in common: They both hurt him, but he loves them all the same. While it’s not true for all skateboarders, for the three depicted here, there’s a risk of injury whether staying at home or escaping to the streets. In the latter case, at least, they only have themselves to blame.