“Minding the Gap” explores life’s complexities through skateboarding


Photo courtesy of Hulu | As the film unfolds, Bing captures 23-year-old Zack’s tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend deteriorate after the birth of their son and 17-year-old Keire struggling with his racial identity as he faces new responsibilities following the death of his father. While navigating a difficult relationship between his camera, his friends, and his own past, Bing ultimately weaves a story of generational forgiveness while exploring the precarious gap between childhood and adulthood. Keire Johnson, shown.

“[Skateboarding] was kind of a life or death thing,” said Eric Neubauer, the owner of Ground Floor Skateboards in Rockford, Illinois, as he discussed the sport’s influence on Bing Liu, a filmmaker and skateboarder that was a patron of the shop years ago.

For the subjects of Liu’s debut documentary “Minding the Gap,” skateboarding often carried similar weight. Using footage compiled over the last decade, Liu paints a portrait of young men grappling with the brink of adulthood while still processing their turbulent childhoods, and using skateboarding as an escape.

Originally from Rockford, a downtrodden factory city about two hours west of Chicago, Liu initially returned to his hometown to continue working on a project about skateboarders and their relationships with their fathers. That quickly transformed into following the lives of two skateboarders, Zack and Keire, over the next five years. Through these stories, Liu offers a poignant and important look into domestic violence, masculinity, race and class.

In an hour and a half, Liu takes the audience on a journey into the lives of these two men and himself as they attempt to break out from under the shadows of their parents and make their way in the world. In a society where the most natural thing may be to follow in the footsteps of those who came before you, Zack, Keire and Liu strive for the opposite.

In one of the earliest and most powerful scenes in the film, Keire discusses his often violent childhood with his father. When asked about how he was “disciplined” he simply says, “Well, they call it child abuse now, but…” He chuckles nervously before falling silent. When asked if he ever cried, Keire asks in return, “Wouldn’t you?” “I did cry,” Liu responds.

“You can’t just tell someone to break the cycle of violence,” said Liu, in an interview. “What does that work look like?”

For each of the film’s subjects, that work looks drastically different.

Zack is charismatic and vibrant, traits foreshadowed in archival tapes of him skating as a younger kid. Often dressed in colorful patterned shirts, he exudes the vitality and excitement that most kids have while doing what they love. After rebelling from a conservative household at a young age, he now must create structure for himself. When we first meet him, he is grappling with the impending responsibility of fatherhood with his girlfriend Nina, as she prepares to give birth to their son. Throughout the course of the film, Zack evolves greatly from this moment, with unexpected and at times shocking revelations.

Keire, a few years younger than both Zack and Liu, is much more gentle and subdued. He has a kind smile and the demeanor of someone who has been through more than his fair share of struggle. Keire’s unique personality is made glaringly obvious we first meet his family, all of whom are almost complete opposites of him and none of whom understand his love for skateboarding. He is on the brink of turning 18 when we first meet him which eventually prompts monumental change for him.

Liu includes aspects of his own story throughout, essentially “putting some skin in the game” as a way to further serve the purpose of the film. By including himself, it helped to justify the emotional depths he went into with the other subjects, he said.

In a moving and vulnerable interview with his mother, Mengyue, Liu turns a camera on himself as they discuss her ex-husband, Liu’s abusive stepfather. An interview with his half-brother Kent also helps to illuminate the harrowing experiences they dealt with in their childhood home growing up.

Old skate footage serves as the only time we get to actually see the subjects as children and young teenagers, falling bodies hitting the ground across the skate park. Shouts of frustration are commonplace and broken boards are just a byproduct of the sport so many see as harsh and unforgiving.

In the present, long shots of the skaters landing difficult tricks with ease, are accompanied by serene orchestral music. According to Liu, the music choice was very deliberate. With calm, beautiful music accompanying these shots, it paints a more authentic look at how skaters actually view their sport, more feminine and more like dance or jazz than anything else, he said.

Intimate details regarding any violence and personal struggles are held close to the chest. With just enough revealed to make clear what happened without going in depth, the focus shifts to the present and future for the subjects as they deal with the aftermath and move forward, rather than dwelling on the past.

“Minding the Gap” is a powerful debut for Liu and an important look into the complexities of modern life today. Skateboarding is, by all means, the backbone of the film with each landed trick a small victory for the audience as much as the skater. However, the story truly blossoms through the vulnerability and honesty of the subjects. Topics that are difficult to tackle are deconstructed with care and expertise to reveal the true challenges behind growing and carving your own path in life. Most importantly, Liu hopes that kids “recognize that you have volition and life and you’re not damned to be your parents.”