Director: Bing Lui,
Watched at: Hot Docs 2018,
Minding the Gap opens with an exuberant sequence of skateboarders coasting through vacant parking lots, cruising empty urban streets, and jumping curbs with a youthful and–for a movie that is just getting started–already aching innocence. We meet the main characters, Zack and Keira, on their boards, and also the guy holding the camera, Bing Lui; all childhood friends growing up in the Rust Belt town of Rockford, Illinios, and all on the cusp of the bittersweet awareness that these blissful times can certainly never last.
Lui started out making skateboard videos with his buddies, and then kept filming as they transitioned from adolescence to their late teens and eventually into early manhood. Zack becomes a father after his girlfriend, Nina, has a baby, and Keira struggles to find work and to keep boarding while also becoming increasingly isolated as the only black man in a circle of white friends. Lui seems to be having the most fun, making the film his friends are starring in, using nothing but a collection of handheld cameras and a kinetic eye for the cinematic movement of bodies careening over concrete. It’s his closeness to the story and his honest interplay that gives the film its sense of real life unfolding before our eyes. This is an element that is remarkably missing from so many high-profile docs these days, concerned as they are with commercial-grade cinematography, glamourized talking heads, social justice agendas, re-enactments, animations, and the imprimatur of do-gooderism.
I would have been happy to watch these boys-to-men for 90 minutes simply navigating the temptations and responsibilities of their young lives in a town wracked by unemployment, crime and a ceaseless undercurrent of hopelessness. But Lui, as a first-time filmmaker, decided at some point to introduce his work to a few of the taste-makers of the documentary industry, in this case Kartemquin Films in Chicago, where his little handmade film began the usual round of workshops, funding applications, test screenings, edits and re-edits and more edits. In the eyes of the industry, this all paid off. Minding the Gap has become a monumental success. Backed by most of the major funders, a runaway winner of dozens of film festival awards, and picked up by Hulu and Magnolia pictures, the movie is that rare documentary that everyone seems to love (except perhaps for those filmmakers whose movies keep getting nudged out of the festival limelight by this one).
But about halfway through, the fingerprints of Lui’s handlers become more and more obvious. It’s not enough to simply experience these lives unfolding; to hang out in the kitchen with Zack or in the restaurant washing dishes with Keira; to contextualize their existence within the limited horizons of one of America’s forgotten Midwestern cities; apparently, we need a framing device, and it is an all-too common one. The three young men have been abandoned or abused (or both) by their fathers or stepfathers, and Lui increasingly directs his questions and narrows his editing choices to amplify this theme. There is certainly sympathy to be had for the raw deals these boys got from the men in their lives, but the narrative decision to focus the movie’s attention–as if we, the easily distracted audience, need our attention focused–on this unfortunate societal bruise seems to stereotype the characters more than illuminate them.
I was especially bothered by the scene where Lui returns to Rockford to interview his mom about his dad’s abusiveness. It wasn’t so much the fact that his mom revealed very little in the interview–other than tears–that annoyed me, it was that Lui shot the interview with a full-on crew consisting of a DP, lighting techs, scrims, flags and the huge gaping maws of overpowering lights (shown to us, for no real reason, in a wide shot). All of this unnecessary gear was literally placed between Lui and his mom as he tried to have an “intimate” conversation with her. Was this imposed on Lui by his Kartemquin overlords, or was it his choice? In a post-screening Q&A at the Hot Docs film festival, Lui said the decision to conduct the interview was made after several test screening audiences suggested the film needed this additional scene, but did it need to be shot with a method so obviously different from the rest of the film?
As the movie winds down, we are treated to three endings: a montage to tie the threads of the three boys’ father issues together (including an ill-advised visit to a gravesite), a shot of Keira finally leaving Rockford behind for bigger things, and–sandwiched in the middle of those two sequences–a moving skateboarding montage from the kids’ carefree past. It is this sequence that should have ended Minding the Gap, as it brings us back to the heartbreaking question mark of the movie: how do you go from gliding on wheels as a boy to walking on your own two feet as a man?