While this is an autobiographical story about a young aspiring filmmaker and his skateboarding crew, it also speaks volumes about contemporary rust-belt USA, masculinity and abuse, weaving its themes and characters around scenes of the boys sailing through the near-empty streets.
Their hometown is Rockford, a northern Illinois city of about 150,000 which took a hard hit during the recession. The film reflects the struggle of aspirations against a tough socio-economic background. (Hoop Dreams director Steve James served as executive director, and it echoes his sensibility and concerns.) Thanks to its long gestation period, it’s a film that changes its style and tone as it progresses as we watch the filmmaker both grow up and grow artistically, moving from clowning skateboard montages to troubling direct-to-camera revelations.
Almost too conveniently, the three friends serve as three distinct representative types: Zack, the brash white working-class kid who feels he’s chronically underachieving; Keire, a shy African-American kid; and filmmaker Liu, the Chinese-American immigrant struggling to find his social place.
Charismatic Zack, who works as part-time roofer, is their rock star leader, a risk-taker determined to get old. The sensitive Keire has a skateboard inscribed with the phrase, “This device cures heartache.” Each boy conflicts with their father or stepfather and clings to their skateboarding crew as “more family than family.”
Adulthood overtakes them. When 23-year-old Zack and his 21-year-old girlfriend, Nina, have a baby, neither is prepared for the responsibility. The relationship unravels, with drinking, violence and then a separation.
When Keire’s father dies, the young man begins to understand his father’s rough discipline and racial fears. Shortly after Keire gets his first car, he finds himself facing a cop’s gun, for no apparent reason except that he’s black and behind the wheel.
The director serves as a sounding board for his friends, and gradually works up to confronting his immigrant mother about his own past. Why did she stay with his abusive stepfather so long? The segment is wrenching.
Liu, now 29, is as good an action cinematographer as he is an unwaveringly honest interviewer. He balances the personal stories with the scenes of the young men skating, where the tumbles hurt but the temporary physical pains are a small price for the joys of freedom.
Minding the Gap. Directed by Bing Liu. With Bing Liu, Zack Mulligan and Keire Johnson. Opens September 28 at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.