We formed a family together.
It begins as a film about self-created community, three young men coming together on their skateboards to escape the private turmoil experienced at home. The sport was a cathartic outlet more than some bid to act cool, helping them become close enough friends to share details about their individual demons and discover how similar their pasts proved. Suddenly director Bing Liu—who we see cutting his cinematic chops with skating videos shot in the parks and on the streets of their Rockford, Illinois hometown—saw a chance to go deeper than the same clichéd documentation of pent-up rage and outcast toxicity we’ve seen before. His proximity and trust with Kiere Johnson and Zack Mulligan provided an opportunity to humanize a real American problem society still tries to hide.
Minding the Gap turns into a therapeutic account of surviving adolescence in a world just now starting to open its eyes to exactly how wrong it has been. Kiere tells Bing that his father apologized after beating him as means of punishment one day because it was how he was raised. It’s this type of thinking and knowing that allows inexcusable behavior to continue being prevalent. And while some will see it as an example of parenting and living used to do everything in their power to stop the cycle, others don’t have the choice. As soon as they accept what happened as being their fault, they will search for ways to numb the psychological pain that endures when the bruises subside. Eventually they become what they feared.
Kiere is the former: struggling to come to grips with the internal conflict of loving his father despite enduring his wrath and coping with his death ensuring they’ll never reconcile those emotions to move forward together. Zack is the latter: drinking heavily to the point of becoming “worse” than his oppressive father ever was before ultimately driving his girlfriend (Nina) and infant son (Elliott) away. They both grew up in this town with high crime and higher poverty. They both sought to escape the life they could no longer handle and discovered the complexities of trauma’s ever-morphing push and pull. One is black, the other white. One is hopeful, the other resigned to fate. One strives to see his good while the other declares none exists within him.
And then there’s Bing himself. For the most part he stays behind the camera as cinematographer and director, but he’s very much the third subject of what unfolds as well. He took up skating to get out of his house too since remaining there meant getting a beating from his stepfather. The parallels don’t end there either with familial deaths, tough attempts at forgiveness, and excruciatingly painful journeys into the past to try and find meaning in what occurred. Bing confronts his mother and her role in what happened to him. He also gives a voice to Nina and lets the comparisons between those two women—a generation apart—speak its truth. He’s unwittingly stumbled upon the fact his life exists at a nexus point of systemic abuse.
Rather than shy away from the impossible questions that must be asked to begin a path of understanding and healing, these three men bare their souls. It’s not always good (see Zack), but sometimes we need to speak aloud the horrible things rolling around our heads to fully comprehend how lost we’ve become. Them being so close allows for a level of candor you simply do not see often considering most documentaries are led my outsiders kept at arm’s length. Maybe they didn’t quite realize the potential reach this film could earn or maybe they didn’t care and were compelled to get everything that haunted them off their chests no matter the consequences. Either way, the result is this unforgettably beautiful depiction of honest self-reflection and transformative possibility.
Watching Bing’s mother breakdown explaining her desire to move on from what can’t be changed is heartbreaking. Seeing Nina pick at her steering wheel while wrestling with the potential fallout of Bing asking Zack about his hitting her is too. Then you have Kiere’s face dropping when his white friends freely laugh at an offensive racial joke dropping the n-word; the fear that might never go away in Bing’s half-brother as he remembers to shut doors like his now deceased father demanded; and the juxtaposition of Kiere’s rise and Zack’s fall all while the trio inevitably grows distant without ever losing faith in each other’s hearts. Those scenes lawyers fight to expunge in less personal projects are left intact to remind viewers they’re not alone in their anguish.
To say much more would be a disservice to an expertly edited affair drawing as many lines between points on an evolutionary timeline as those connecting victims of harrowing thematic subject matter. It’s crazy to think this is the work of a first-time filmmaker (who’s worked in Hollywood for almost a decade now, most recently as camera operator) because of his deft hand crafting the overarching story he does. While the topic’s connection was a huge factor in shooting the footage he got, exiting out the other side of the project with something as assured and focused as what Minding the Gap proves takes true talent and vision. And capturing it all with such sensitivity cements its power for recognition and change beyond just three kids from Rockford.