Keire Johnson in Minding the Gap (2018) (photo: trailer screengrab)

‘Minding the Gap’ Skateboarding Documentary Mines Surviving Domestic Violence

For those who proclaim that people are solely responsible for their life's choices, Bing Liu's, Minding the Gap shows what costs come with attempting to break cycles of violence, poverty, and addiction.

Minding the Gap
Bing Liu
12 January 2021

Films have ways of tangling your expectations, unlike other art forms. Perhaps this is due to their time-based, immersive quality or because of the profound ways they can viscerally grip you and elevate the medium in unexpected, transcendent directions. It’s difficult to place one’s finger on the exact reasoning since the very medium in part defies verbal explanation. Nonetheless, when the moment happens, the countless hours, days, and years of wading through mediocre films wash away to remind you of what drew you to the art form in the first place. Minding the Gap provides such a rewarding moment.

Straight from its opening, Minding the Gap reveals a skilled filmmaker behind the camera. After a failed attempt to climb a rickety fire escape, three boys skateboard down the ramp of a parking garage and out into the streets of the rust belt town of Rockford, Illinois. The camera deftly follows their movements, imminently tracking each bob and weave. They skate under the closed gate of the garage with the camera mimicking their actions.

Whoever is behind the camera effortlessly frames the boys’ graceful skating and fully anticipates their movements. The camera exposes an intimacy between filmmaker and subject from the outset. Not surprisingly, we soon discover that the filmmaker, Bing Liu, has been friends with them since childhood.

Although many skate films are populated with deft footage of skateboarders in motion, Minding the Gap pays painstaking attention to details where the action is not located. The camera lingers on the thick, well-worn, wooden green and purple door of a local skate shop that serves as a hub where this community of skaters congregates. At another moment, the camera briefly traces over the worn groves endless boards have etched upon the stone surfaces of a local park. The documentary exposes the textures of everyday life that define this skating community.

The film ostensibly is about the surrogate family that the skating community fosters among a diverse group of boys. This is not unique for skate films. Stacy Peralta’s Dogtown and Z Boys (2001) covered similar terrain in 2001. But as Minding the Gap continues, its narrative mines the underlying causes and similarities that draw these boys together: dysfunctional family lives populated by absentee or abusive fathers and mothers who struggle under the wake of the emotional and physical violence that defines their homes. The film chronicles the abuse the boys suffered and the ongoing violence that they endure, and even more troublingly, the violence they perpetuate themselves at times.

Liu can offer such intimate, detailed portraits both because of his emotional connections with those he films and through his unassuming disposition that allows him to ask in unthreatening ways deeply personal and intrusive questions. At one moment, he asks Roberta, one skater’s mother, if she has a new man in her life. She sits in her living room smiling to herself at first and then attempts to respond. Off-camera we hear her new man’s voice intruding, objecting that the questions are too personal. He finally cuts her response short by announcing, “Roberta, five minutes is up.” Even before the camera’s presence, this guy cannot modulate his controlling, abusive behavior, leading the viewer to question: what occurs when there are no cameras present?

Similarly, Liu provides a painfully intimate interview with his own mother who endured repeated violence from her husband and who also beats his stepchildren, Liu among them, regularly as well. He asks her how she could endure such treatment. She responds, like many of those abused, that he had good sides to him as well. But she generously answers Liu’s questions and holds herself accountable for allowing the abuse to happen as she breaks down during the interview and insists she will do anything, including this interview, to make amends with her son. The conversation is gut-wrenching in its honesty and the graceful way Liu inquires about the abuse without ever being accusatory.

We witness a mutual understanding being forged between mother and son. She asks him about his attitude towards his stepfather: “When you think about him, you get angry, right?” He replies, “Not necessarily. I feel shaky and anxious. I don’t really think about him too much.” She insightfully responds, “If you don’t think about it, I don’t think that’s going to work.” In many ways, this line drives the entire film that plunges into the traumas and resentments that define all of the characters’ familial and interpersonal relationships.

Zack, an older friend of Bing and the other skaters and who serves in part as a pseudo older brother for them, perpetuates the cycle of abuse towards his girlfriend. The pressures of having a baby at a young age, being economically unstable with precarious employment, and living in a town that youth are quickly fleeing — since to remain is a death sentence of abuse, poverty, and drug addiction — Zack descends into alcoholism and resentment against Nina, his girlfriend. Liu perfectly captures the couple’s untenable life and increasing pressures in a single shot of their living room. The couple sits on a dilapidated couch. A coffee table littered with glasses and other abandoned items presses into their knees. A baby’s crib squats against the table and couch. The camera films uncomfortably close to the couple, suggesting the room’s lack of space. The home is a pressure cooker where personal space doesn’t exist, allowing tensions to run high.

Later on in the film, we hear Nina screaming on a video recording one of Zack’s friends took of her wanting to kill Zack. But soon after, Nina explains her side of the story: Zack beat her before that moment, which his friend conveniently didn’t capture. Zack becomes increasingly visibly drunk throughout the film, his behavior more erratic. Liu eventually questions Zack during a two-hour drunken interview by film’s end where Zack admits, “Sometimes bitches need to get slapped.”

At this precise moment, the film cuts to Liu’s reaction, looking on in shock. But the cut is deceptive. We soon realize that Liu’s reaction isn’t over Zack’s comment but is from footage of him hearing about his mother’s abuse when interviewing her. But Liu’s reaction encompasses both moments: the shock of belatedly confronting a reality that was always hidden in plain sight. The editing masterfully weaves how these two moments of the past and present converge. These histories of personal violence come from a larger context and much longer history that shapes the lives of many barely surviving in Rockford, Illinois who sadly and tragically take out their frustrations upon those they love.

The film doesn’t excuse the abuse, but it situates it within a life of endless poverty where the only escape is to leave. Liu escapes to California. Keire, the one Black friend of the group of skateboarders, flees to Arizona, which we learn from him during the film’s audio commentary. Zack remains. Tellingly, based on the film’s audio commentary between him, Bing, and Keire, Zack fails to acknowledge his abusive behavior and the toxic masculinity that still defines his life. This is a shame since the ending of Minding the Gap suggests Zack might finally be reckoning with his behavior. He drunkenly talks to Bing on a hillside overlooking a river and reflects, “I can’t let myself think the reason I struggled so hard is because I fucking suck. That’s what the drinking is about. I just want to hide. I just want to run away.” And he fears what his abusive impact will be upon shaping his son.

But during the 2020 commentary, Zack backtracks, suggesting that Nina was lying about the abuse and the proper way to deal with anything is to suppress one’s emotions. Keire pushes back, suggesting that Zack was abusive and how he believes Nina. Keire regrets an earlier instance within the film when he thinks Zack would be incapable of such behavior since, ultimately, anyone can be violent, given the right conditions.

Tellingly, Zack says he gets “so much shit” for saying, “sometimes bitches need to get slapped.” But he thinks it’s because he said “bitches”, not because of his approval of violence against women. Keire keeps trying to press Zack into understanding that that’s a misogynistic comment reflecting abusive behavior without reducing Zack into being nothing more than an abuser. Yet Zack dismissively replies, “People are just pussies nowadays.”

The film’s audio commentary is deeply unsettling, not simply because Zack remains unrepentant and unaccountable for his past behavior. Still, we’re seemingly eavesdropping in on dialogue among a group of people who used to be friends but really only have a documentary uniting them together and nothing more. The commentary is full of uncomfortable silences and, in many ways, undermines our assumptions yet again. Just as one might wrongly have dismissed Minding the Gap as being nothing more than a mindless skate film, one might equally assume that Zack might be more reflective and redeemable after having such a cathartic moment by the end of the documentary. But life doesn’t operate in such an Aristotelian dramatic fashion where catharsis leads to changing one’s behavior. People have an amazing ability to continue along with their shitty ways, despite showing glimmers of hope and self-reflectivity.

Keire is the emotional center of the film. He’s the only character who remains close with his mother and extended family. We often catch him playing with younger cousins. He’s a sensitive person who deals with awkwardness and anger through an inordinate amount of laughter. As mentioned earlier, he’s the only Black character of the crew of skaters. Although race is barely remarked upon by the characters, racism has ways of rearing its head periodically. For example, in one scene, Kerie hangs out with Zack and a few other white friends in the backyard drinking and smoking weed. Zack and his white friends huddle around a cell phone, watching footage of some racist comedian spouting the n-word. Keire stands to the side. He looks into the fire, disturbed, dazed, viscerally feeling separated from his adopted community. The sequence testifies to Liu’s perceptive gaze that catches the fleeting details occurring away from the action that allows us briefly into the inner lives of the people he’s filming.

Minding the Gap is not a treatise on working-class life and race in the United States. But through its painstaking attention to detail, it details how poverty and race impact people’s lives and the immense amount of effort it takes to escape from a dead-end, dysfunctional environment. For those who proclaim that people are solely responsible for their life’s choices, Minding the Gap shows what costs come with attempting to break cycles of violence, poverty, and addiction. It means splitting from your family, abandoning your friends, and ultimately reclaiming a sense of agency that much of your life had attempted to crush.

This is the secret of skateboarding in Liu’s: it provides a temporary sanctuary from these crushing pressures when you can momentarily feel weightless, free from your past and where the future briefly hangs as free in the air as your board. Whether you come down smoothly or crash into the pavement is irrelevant for that temporary feeling of abandon. Tellingly scrawled in marker across Keire’s board is the motto: “This Device Cures Heartache”, which in many ways encapsulates the entire skating endeavor of these boys. But skateboarding alone is not enough.

Minding the Gap ends on a positive note with Kerie escaping Rockford to move to Denver, Colorado. But, again, we see the emotional costs. He lies with his mother and cousins on a bed. She asks quietly and unconvincingly if he can’t wait until next week to move. He cries as he hugs her.

We watch him chip away ice from a mini-fridge that he struggles to lodge in the backseat of his beat-up car. Clothes and boxes are stacked inside the car, blocking its side windows. We watch him ride off down the street. In the Criterion Blu-ray extras, we learn the Keire has been thriving. Tony Hawk, skateboard guru, reflects upon how he found Kerie’s skateboarding style so majestic that he has sought out Keire to make commercials and skate videos with. In the audio commentary, Keire mentions that he has a girlfriend and is a musician in Arizona. Yet, he notes, the mini-fridge he lugged all the way to Denver didn’t work when he finally plugged it in at his new home, beautifully crystalizing a final metaphor regarding our futile desire to carry the past with us as we pursue new, unexpected directions in our lives that no longer have any place for it.