Thursday, 28 March 2019

MINDING THE GAP review

Now in cinemas and on VOD, Bing Liu's Oscar nominated documentary follows the lives of three skateboarders in his hometown of Rockford, Illinois.



It's almost a cliche that when you see a group of skateboarders one of them will be holding a camera, but what are they going to do with all that footage? Sometimes it's turned into montages of slickly delivered moves or a compilation of epic fails that they can watch in their front room, but in the case of Bing Liu he's taken that footage then pivoted his camera towards his friends lives away from their boards, giving us one of the most moving studies of masculinity you'll see this year.

The film focuses on three main subjects - Keire, a young black man looking for a way to make his family proud; Zack, a dropout hoping to fulfil his duties as a father, and Bing, the director of this film dealing with his own family trauma. It's perhaps an obvious statement to make, but Minding the Gap isn't really about skateboarding. It's more about living up to familial and societal expectations, understanding how the sins of the father fall upon their children and breaking a cycle of abuse through the support and common (in this case tarmacced) ground we share with our friends.

Rockford, Illinois is shown to be a smorgasbord of skating arenas, where the youth are able to film themselves performing tricks and be largely ignored by the local police, just as long as they stay out of trouble. Zack, the charming and rebellious Bam Margera-alike leader of the group has his demons close to the surface, often revealed when his drinking gets the better of him. This is a film compiled of footage and events from close to a decade of filming, and particularly in the case of Zack, it pulls no punches in depicting him with deep, troubling flaws, whilst allowing him the opportunity to learn from his mistakes. Zack is arguably the initial focus of the film, but much like the younger generation of skaters featured in the film who begin to pity his lifestyle instead of revere his lack of responsibility, there comes a point where he doesn't seem like the fun guy to hang out with anymore.

It is Keire who has the truest emotional journey of the film. As the youngest member of a predominantly white group of friends, although it is never something they aim to do he is clearly made to be uncomfortable by some of their othering of black people. There is a scene filmed at a social gathering where his face cannot hide the discomfort he feels as someone tells a joke that includes the N word, something that is caught by Liu's camera but that the group of friends are oblivious too. Keire rides a board that states "this device cures heartache", although one recurring event in the film is how often he breaks his boards by accident, his serenity giving way to anger that his means of escape has gone. One scene flashes back to a much younger Keire taking revenge on a bully by attempting to break his board, but as a small child at the time he doesn't have the physical strength to do it or the emotional strength to walk away. As an adult he is now learning how to do that.

Although it's clear that Keire's relationship with his father was strained at best, he often returns to his father's words in order to make sense of his place in the world, told that "if you could choose again, choose to be black" because you consistently get to prove people wrong. Keire is a young man determined to make something of himself in a way that Zack hasn't had top contemplate. Although the film does focus on Zack and Keire with Bing using his own story to form bridges between them, there is the presence of Nina, the mother of Zack's child, that offers the film another viewpoint. She is largely the only female voice in the film, and can be seen to have the most solid growth into adulthood and a world of responsibilities.

The visual language of a "skateboarding film" is well established by now, but as well as the on-board tracking camera and over shoulder interviews there are a number of motifs the film keeps returning to. Rockford almost feels like a deserted town with no "adults", with static shots of solidly built family homes suggesting more happening on the inside. The subjects' parents are present, most notably Bing's heartbreaking interview with his mother, but at its core Minding the Gap is about a journey down a road with your friends by your side.

With his directorial debut Liu has earmarked himself as one to watch. As director, editor, cinematographer and subject, he tracks a number of issues that he and his friends have had to face, including some horrific instances of domestic abuse that has had a deep effect on all three men. All three may have used skateboarding as a way to escape their family homes, but by looking past race, class and wealth he finds the commonality between them.

Verdict
5/5

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