Minding the Gap (2018)
Not rated, but there's a ton of content that could be considered offensive. The movie is constantly peppered with adult language. Drinking seems to be pretty prevalent. I think most of the boys are smokers. Also, the movie deals with abuse, both child and spousal. The boys are also drug users. The only thing that the movie doesn't have is sex, but that's still a lot to deal with.
DIRECTOR: Bing Liu
They got me. At first, this was going to be the one that I was going to rally against. I am still a little shook that Won't You Be My Neighbor? didn't get an Oscar nom. But when I saw that a skateboarding documentary made it, I really got all up in arms. I thought that this was a movie that had privilege behind it the entire time and I was completely wrong. Out of the Best Documentary category, this might be my favorite. The movie is way heavier than I was originally going to give it credit for and that is wildly impressive to me.
The biggest problem is that I can't show this to my students. The movie starts off with a bunch of stoners who like to skateboard. That's not a judgment call. The movie has one of the three, Zack, wondering if Bing, the director, was going to include him smoking pot in the film. (Note: I refer to him as Bing instead of Liu because he really is a character in the whole documentary. Despite the fact that he is mostly behind the camera, this is as much his story as it is the other boys' stories.) They are partying constantly. They drink to get drunk and then they do stunts off of their skateboards. They lead the life that we've been told is fun and they live life to excess every day. I've gotten my fill of skateboarding stoners being filmed. I remember the halcyon Jackass days where people acted like morons and hurt themselves on camera. The idea that this was coming back and getting nominated for Academy Awards blew my mind. But the movie isn't that. The movie is centered around skateboarding and partying, but the story is so much more. I never saw this coming, but the movie is about abuse and growing up. For those not in the know, Bing Liu, the director, has been filming this group of friends since the moment they met their now long-time friend Kiere. Kiere is a person of color that normally stands as an outsider in the traditionally white world of skateboarding. But the three grew close quickly. Everything that they had ever done had been videotaped by Bing, who quickly became obsessed with documenting their lives. Through the course of these films, Bing discovered that all three dealt with child abuse at one time or another. Now, that's one very important element to the story, but the second element is that Zack and, by proxy, the boys have to grow up. Zack and his girlfriend Nina have a child and Zack is not prepared for life at all. None of the boys are. Because of their history of abuse with their parents, they have all escaped their cycles of violence through skateboarding and partying. The problem is that Zack has picked up his father's violent tendencies and that is playing out in a very real way with his friends.
Bing Liu seems to really hurt. The relationship of Liu with the audience is a strange one. For a documentary, there are places that Liu wants to explore that the boys aren't really aware of. For them, this is Bing making skateboarding movies with his friends. They know that this is going to be made into a formal documentary, but Bing is there to ask questions. He alludes to the fact that something inside of him is broken. We tend to find out what is going on in Bing's head through the probing questions that he posits. I find Bing's interviewing method interesting. He possibly seems like the most human interviewer as possible. He is asking things that are extremely painful, both to the interviewee and to himself. But he does so in a vulnerable way, with the possible exception of his mother. Because Liu has such a personal relationship with his subjects, he does have something to lose when he asks questions. SPOILERS: After Nina reveals that Zack has attacked her quite violently, she tells Bing that he cannot tell Zack that he knows. The entire rest of the film is this holding pattern of Bing trying to find a way to ask Zack about his abusive personality and conveying this information to Kiere. I don't think that I've ever felt more in on the inner circle as I have while watching Minding the Gap. There is the disbelief that Zack is a bad person because we get to know him in a positively social light. From Bing Liu's perspective, Zack is dating Nina, a girl who is emotional and not ready to take care of a child. When Liu is made aware of Zack's violent tendencies, there's always that questioning of "What is reality?" I've been there before. I never wanted to believe that one of my friends had done something awful. These friends seem like they are incapable of that behavior. But then it happens and you are placed in a really awkward position. Minding the Gap manages to bottle up that awkwardness while asking the hard questions. The film doesn't mind getting hard and that is really fascinating. Remember, I thought this movie was all about skateboarding and drinking. But then there's the scene where Bing asks his mother about Bing's abusive stepfather. We see the raw nerve that Bing has been living with for the majority of his life and it is uncomfortable to watch at times. He borderline tortures his mother with his bluntness in that moment. We see this complicated relationship explain itself in a matter of minutes. Bing Liu loves his mother and his half-brother, but is also furious that she forced him to endure a childhood with this abusive man.
Kiere is fascinating. I want to see what happens with this kid because he is one of the most earnest souls I've seen in a documentary. Kiere almost fits in nowhere. He seems genuinely devoted to his friends, but really seems like an outsider wherever he goes. Liu seems to understand Kiere's plight while the rest of his friends seem oblivious. As a commentary on race, Kiere is often seen both as the center of the group and an outsider as well. His white friends seem to comment flippantly on race and try relating to problems that are unique to Kiere's situation. But because of the abuse that Kiere faced at home, he really has no tribe outside of his adopted friends. From other African Americans, Kiere is an outsider. His brother steals from him. Kiere dresses differently. Incarceration is typical for members of his family. There's nothing that really keeps him there outside of the love for his mother, which quickly fades when she brings home yet another abusive man. There's this odd shift where Kiere considers himself a nomad. He doesn't really have a permanent home and he finds places to stay when the going is right. But he is also is the one who wants to grow up and make something of himself, despite the fact that he doesn't really have a gun to his head. To make matters worse, and this is where I completely relate, his father died. Unlike the other two boys, Kiere actually holds his father quite dear to his heart. Kiere's message (and again, it's a documentary) is that abuse doesn't always look like one thing. Kiere has this complex relationship with his dad. He hates the dark times with his father, but misses his dad. I never went through an abusive situation. I had a marvelous childhood. I miss my dad all the time. But I also wonder if I would deify my dad like I do now if he had survived. Who would Kiere be if his father hadn't died? It's this whole coming to terms story and I absolutely adore it. It is so much.
But the center of the story, and the thing that should be taken away, is Zack. Zack is this human cautionary tale. There are moments in the movie where Zack seems like the message he's conveying. He's kind of trashy. He's obsessed with drinking and partying and all of that nonsense. That's actually a central motif to Zack. If he can be drinking and having a good time, he is. In fact, we tend to bond with drunk burnout Zack versus the other versions of Zack. But it's when he tries to be an adult that he becomes scary. I'm the kind of guy who demands that people get their acts together. I'm the worst. I know that I'm the worst. But Zack scares me when he attempts to be responsible. He gets this sense of pride that he knows better than those around him and becomes a huge jerk. Zack, when he's Good-Time-Charlie, seems like he couldn't hurt a fly. But Zack is also this story of someone who can't just be thrown into reality. There's all these steps in adolescence that slowly transition us into places of responsibility. This creates this interesting situation. I want to believe that Zack couldn't beat his girlfriend. He is extremely convincing that he's valid in his disappointment with his girlfriend. That's scary. I get upset all the time, but I'm also prepped to deal with that in a completely reasonable way (as far as I know). But Zack is scary. I know that Zack isn't alone. Minding the Gap doesn't excuse Zack's behavior, but it makes it make sense. He makes violence believable. He's the bad guy of the story, but he's not really treated as the bad guy. Bing is horrified by his behavior and that is clear, but he never goes out of his way to vilify him. That's our job.
I loved Minding the Gap. I really wasn't prepped to. While I will always rally for Of Fathers and Sons to win, I wouldn't mind for Minding the Gap to win. In terms of scale, it's very small. But it goes way deeper than I was prepped for a documentary to go.
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Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.