Bing Liu’s Skateboarding Documentary, ‘Minding the Gap’, Is a Manifesto of Youth Delivered by the Young

Some people never grow up but in skateboarding documentary, ‘Minding the Gap’, no one ever stops growing.

Minding the Gap
Bing Liu
12 January 2021

Youth is fleeting—both in real life and especially in Bing Liu‘s 2018 skateboarding documentary Minding the Gap, a film about three childhood friends—including the director himself—as they sit on the cusp of adulthood. This is a cinéma vérité anthropological study of Rockford, Illinois’s skateboarding culture, and a bracingly intimate portrait of three friends’ struggle with generational trauma and growing up. Ultimately, Minding the Gap is about the confluence of tensions that emerge at the final horizon of adolescence. It’s an effigy for boyhood burned in manhood and a real rarity in today’s arts and entertainment world: a manifesto of youth delivered by the young.

Minding the Gap is a fascinating marriage of the personal and the familiar. It takes us through the early life journey of two of Liu’s friends Zack and Kiere, and himself, explored via two parallel narrative trajectories: from the perspective of their turbulent home lives and that of their bonds within the Rockford skateboarding community. 

In the latter, they are towering, prominent figures: teenager Zack is an elder statesman, fiercely protective of the younger and weaker among them, whose house serves as a hub of communal activity; Kiere is one of the city’s top skaters; Bing is a long-dedicated documentarian, capturing the city’s action since the age of 11 through a constantly growing arsenal of camcorders. In footage mined from Liu’s DV tape archives, Minding the Gap grants us access to the moments—the freedoms and triumphs—that defined the early lives of these friends on Rockford’s streets.

But after he introduces us to the characters of his Rockford crew, Liu’s film starts hinting toward almost unspoken darkness poisoning each of their home lives, something that necessitates the radical escape that skateboarding brings them. There are several complex dynamics at play here: Kiere’s parents were separated, and his father died at a young age, Bing grew up under the thumb of a now-deceased abusive step-father, and early in the film, Zack’s off-and-on girlfriend Nina gave birth to a son. It isn’t long before it’s revealed that Rockford, it seems, has an epidemic of domestic abuse that has affected all of them, mostly through their fathers.

Armed with the open rebelliousness, desperate innocence, and frank ignorance of teenagers and 20-somethings, Zack, Kiere, and Bing are immediately recognizable fixtures of any Midwest high school or youth community. Even with the camera in their faces, they’re unguarded in the presence of their friends; they drink beer, smoke weed, and argue over the absurd (and often uncomfortable) preoccupations of teenage boy angst. In this state, Kiere, Zack, and Bing are shockingly candid about the fraught relationships in their lives—Kiere with his father, who beat him but whom he misses desperately, Zack with Nina, which turns out to be a toxic, explosive, and seemingly violent relationship, and Bing with his mother, for whom he unconsciously harbors resentment for not better protecting him from his step-father’s abuse.

With this context, the gang’s love for skateboarding—captured by Liu throughout the film with a fluid and dynamic grace found only in the best skate videos—becomes more than a means of escape; it becomes a political, even spiritual expression of independence. For them, the family has come to represent a restrictive and repressive existence defined by authority, structure, and obedience. Their friendship, in contrast, is an almost sacred display of personal agency and identity, representing freedom, fellowship, prestige within their community, and most important of all, a sense of dignity denied them by suffocating home lives.

Those competing roles and responsibilities come to a head as their difficult childhoods threaten to resolve into equally difficult adulthoods. It begins with Zack and Nina’s newborn and Liu’s hard cut from an outrageous house party to a morning diaper change. Zack undergoes an onscreen reorientation of power from being a son to being a father. He reacts to that shift by clinging to immaturity and, the movie suggests, tragically continuing the cycle of abuse under which he suffered. In this juxtaposition, Minding the Gap shows us what it looks like to fight so hard for a semblance of independence and control that it fundamentally breaks you—either physically, as street skateboarding can, or mentally, as inherited traumas mutate into enduring neuroses and repeated abuses.

Other responsibilities crop up that require special attention, from Kiere and Zack’s various jobs to Zack’s GED test. Minding the Gap really leans into the obligations of conformity that come with the transitional stage of young adulthood, showing that it’s about more than no longer being able to do whatever you want. It’s about the loss of creativity and individual identity—elements emphasized in skateboarding culture—and about being forced to participate in a system that you disagree with because there is no alternative, living within the constraints of a society that never protected you or your innocence.

On some level, skateboarding is about rebellion against the traditional hierarchies that failed them, but adulthood demands a certain level of conformity to existing institutions; it’s a prerequisite of survival that some, like Kiere, come to accept, difficult as it is, and others, like Zack, try in vain to reject. They are clearly people still growing into their own shoes, learning to be comfortable with themselves and the unpleasant realities of being an adult.

Minding the Gap has a lot of big moments—Kiere’s emotionally unsettling visit to his father’s grave, Nina’s surprising confession of physical abuse from Zack, Liu’s heartbreaking interview with his own mother—but Liu is most adept at capturing the minute details that reflect that awkward period of growth out of childhood that everyone experiences. Minding the Gap reminds us that there is no absolute line of demarcation for maturity. In that hazy margin between childhood and adulthood, the very structure of our entire lives takes shape. Potential is squandered and propelled based on what occurs at the indefinite precipice of coming of age. Their decisions as teenagers become the material foundation for the men they become.

If childhood is about creating identification and definition, learning, absorbing, and coming to understand the meanings of abstract terms like family, manhood, and nurturing, then having those ideas distorted in trauma can fracture the basis of the rest of their lives. Minding the Gap illustrates through rigid conflicts and small freedoms that growing into your skin is hard enough without trying to heal those fissures at the same time.

The special features on The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray edition of Minding the Gap go beyond the realm of mere addendums and supplementary information into being a near essential epilogue for anyone who ever had any emotional investment in the lives of Liu and his friends. Highlights include outtakes of scenes that didn’t make the final cut, an interview with professional skateboarder Tony Hawk adding worthwhile context regarding skateboarding culture, his own interest in the film, and collaborations he’s done with Kiere. There’s also a program featuring executive producer Gordon Quinn and producer Diane Quon about Liu’s challenges balancing his role as a documentarian and also one of its subjects. Liu’s 2010 documentary short, Nước.

As varied and unique as these supplements are, though, only a few are obligatory watches. I was excited to experience the new 2020 interview between Liu and Nina. Though the documentary is largely supportive of and sympathetic to Nina’s point-of-view, we don’t learn as much about her as Zack and Kiere. This interview amends that by digging more into her own childhood and her experience being part of the film. It also focuses on how she and her son are doing now and the responses she’s seen from the film’s audiences.

Criterion’s release features two new commentaries, which is an enormous gift at a time when the label seems to record them less and less. Liu’s 2020 solo commentary is valuable in so many ways, not only as a filmmaker—as an interviewer, cinematographer, producer, editor, indeed, the filmmaker—but as the key participant in the film, with a profound and intimate insight into everything and everyone we see, from the Rockford locations to the background figures we only see glimpses of. Considering his extensive knowledge of technical production details and firsthand understanding of the world onscreen, it’s no surprise he has a lot to talk about.

Less welcome but perhaps more immediately interesting is the 2020 commentary track featuring Liu, Kiere, and Zack. This feels mostly like a mistake; while it’s compelling to see how the friends’ dynamic has evolved since the release of the film, none of them seem to have much to say about anything that happens onscreen. With Liu doing very little conversational guiding, discussions frequently devolve into awkward small talk and dead-air.

Furthermore, Zack’s participation here has proven somewhat controversial given the position the movie appears to take on his supposed abuses, and unfortunately, the three friends mostly avoid discussion around those topics. When Zack does confront the challenging issues (with a disappointing but perhaps unsurprising attitude), only Kiere provides modest pushback. Ultimately, it feels fruitless. Separate interviews with Kiere and Zack in the style of the Nina interview might have proved far more informative and less like a platform for gaslighting.

Still, after rewatching the film, I immediately binged through most of the extras, including the full commentaries. There’s a need to know where the lives of these people have led them in the last few years—to see how they’ve grown and what they’ve learned—and the special features satisfy that curiosity in a truly remarkable way that perhaps no other documentary outside of Michael Apted‘s Up series (1964-2019) has done. They make this a vitally important release for anyone who has enjoyed or will enjoy the film.