DIRECTED BY

Bing Liu

 

WITH

Keire Johnson

Zack Mulligan

Bing Liu

 

RATED

R

 

RELEASED IN

2018

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 38 Mins.

Minding the Gap  

n Minding the Gap (2018), skateboarding is a salve. In the documentary, which is the Chinese American filmmaker Bing Liu’s feature-length debut, it is perhaps the only thing the three men the film is about — Bing and two people from his childhood, Zack and Keire — that dependably brings them unbridled joy.

Zack Mulligan and Keire Johnson in 2018's "Minding the Gap."

I

 

This notion isn’t an overstatement. The premise of the film, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last year, is that Bing, who grew up in the economically depressed, crime-ridden Rockford, Illinois, comes home after spending some time away. (After graduating from high school, he briefly attended Rock Valley College, then went to the University of Illinois to study literature. Bing, who is 30, began working in the movies around 2012.) Initially, the film seems as if it might be a feature-length, mostly celebratory reunion — an unconventional way for Bing, Zack, and Keire, who are seemingly friends, to catch up. The ensuing movie will maybe be about their shared love of skateboarding, steeped in nostalgia. It grew, after all, from lo-fi videos Bing made in his youth.

 

Skateboarding and the nostalgia which comes with it, though, are only two elements of Minding the Gap, which is a treatise on small-town living, racism, masculinity, midlife crises, and especially domestic abuse, which, we learn, is something all the men have experienced in some shape or form. Bing, after a while, makes it clear that he’s seeking something analogous to closure in making it. Over the course of the movie, he will uncover how the abuse Keire suffered as a child, at the hands of his father, has impacted him. He will also probe the revelation that Zack, who, early in the film, becomes a dad, has grown to become an abuser himself, completing something of a cycle for the movie.

 

More personally, Bing confronts the abuse he, his half-brother, and mother endured after the latter married a violent man in the 1990s. One question of many hanging over Minding the Gap is: how can these people move on from their traumas? Can they move on? Despite its abundance of themes and ideas, the film is never didactic or overt. It records the experiences, worldviews, and neuroses that define these individuals simply, with its emotional and political ideas swelling as we spend some time processing.

 

Evident is that coming into the movie, Bing had a nebulous though driven idea of what he wanted the film to be (“I saw my story in yours,” he tells Keire at one point, providing something of a hint) but had no idea of the nuanced testimonials that would appear. An urgent, compelling narrative unfolds organically. Some of its run-time is made up of scenes in which Bing vulnerably shows himself in conversation with his mother and half-brother, stiffly discussing their shared pain.

 

The movie most emphasizes the experiences of Keire, Zack, and the mother of Zack’s child, Nina, in whom we can see many of Bing’s agonies reflected. Keire and Zack both dropped out of high school and feel at the mercy of the decisions they’ve made. (Their worries, though, operate at different levels.) Keire works as a dishwasher — then is promoted to a waiting position — but can’t help but feel like he’s capable of more, even though he’s not so pessimistic about what the future might someday bring.

 

His father recently died, yet his specter seems to have almost bolstered Keire’s love for him. Near the end of the movie, he compares his dad to skateboarding: Both have hurt him immensely but both also evoke a love profound enough to make his feelings near-indescribable.

 

Zack undergoes the vastest transformation in the movie. We especially worry for him in early scenes. There is footage of him and Nina during her pregnancy, during which he worries about being a parent. Then, later, we watch as they try to develop a good domestic routine, to little success. Zack gets work as a roofer. But because hours are scanty, and because of a snag that arrives down the road, he eventually has to take on the role of the stay-at-home dad. Nina makes money as a waitress at a low-end restaurant. When she comes home, Zack hopes that she can alleviate him of his domestic duties so he can take a temporary breather. But because Nina doesn’t much consider his working day as tiresome as hers, she’s wont to go out with friends either before or shortly after coming home, stoking the flames of what will come to be a fractured relationship.

 

A little into the film, we learn that Zack is prone to violent outbursts. A recording from a secondary source shows Nina threatening her boyfriend with a knife, screaming. When Bing asks Nina about the incident, she tells him there’s more to the story. Moments earlier, Zack had beat her up. While speaking with Bing, her bruises are covered in makeup.

 

This sort of violence recurs. Nina asks Bing to refrain from asking Zack about his violence. But, later on, he does anyway. (In promotional interviews, Bing clarified that he had consulted with Nina, experts on abusive behavior, and with filmmakers who have made movies on similarly difficult, potentially dangerous subjects.) Surprising Bing, and us, is in this movie that so sensitively chronicles the damaging effects of abuse, one of the subjects, whom we’ve grown to feel for, speaks, when talking about his brutalities, in the same language used by abusers like Bing’s stepfather and Keire’s father. He intimates that he’s working to change, but can we believe him? Nina and Zack eventually separate, and she’s able to adjust pretty well to a new situation as a single mother. But having given birth when she was 21, she now feels that she’s spent more of her life being someone other than her true self (someone’s daughter, someone’s mother, etc.) — adding to the movie’s palpable ennui.

 

Minding the Gap is understatedly prismatic — able to convincingly show how the environment in which these people grew up, and how the injustices they’ve been made to interact with, have affected them in adulthood. We half-expect the feature to conclude on a despairing note — a testament to how things might not always improve in your life down the line. But Bing seeks to reconstruct a narrative. The film can maybe even be healing, in a way, allowing the people adjacent to his life to not only open up about the malaise that has been instilled in them for so long but also ruminate on how they might go about their lives in the future. (It turns out that Bing, in actuality, barely knew Zack and Keire before making the movie; he learned more about what they had in common in the early stages.) It’s extraordinarily powerful; that Bing was able to conjure a movie so equal parts emotional and heady for his first foray into feature filmmaking signals a singular kind of greatness. A

May 10, 2019