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Review: Minding the Gap

September 28, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Filmmaker Bing Liu returns to his hometown of Rockford, Illinois in his remarkably powerful documentary Minding the Gap, to tell the stories of himself and two other young guys who all grew up together skateboarding around the city.

There’s Zack Mulligan, who is struggling to come to terms with being an adult, especially after having his own son, leading to an increasingly toxic relationship with his girlfriend Nina; and Kiere Johnson, who is trying to get a good job so that he can hopefully move out of the city, while also navigating his place in society as a young black man whose father died when he was young.

Their stories weave together, sharing common traits of absent or abusive fathers, and the film becomes a way for Liu to come to terms with his own past and try to forgive his single mother for marrying a man who abused him as a child. The result is a powerful and beautifully filmed portrait of young men who use skateboarding as an outlet to escape the pain of their lives, set against the modern American backdrop of a once booming industrial town that is now very working class and economically depressed.

The film plays with echoes of Hoop Dreams, touching on grand themes of fathers and sons, the fear of growing up, and trying to break cycles of abuse that threaten to continue unless someone actually stands up and says enough. This leads to some of the most uncomfortable and challenging moments of any film this year, when we start to see evidence of an abusive relationship unfolding before our eyes, with Liu questioning how his place as both filmmaker and friend effects his ability to intervene.

There is a fluidity to the way the skateboarding sequences are shot that gives them an almost balletic quality, with the entrancing steadicam cinematography capturing the profound sense of freedom that skating affords them. The inherent danger of the sport also takes on deeper meaning for them. They will fall off their boards and get bruised, but it’s a way for them to control their pain, knowing that they are in charge of the hurt and can get back up again.

As we become more invested in the lives of these subjects, Minding the Gap becomes very moving to watch, leading to the bittersweet but hopeful final moments, which are underscored by maybe the best musical cue of the year with the beautifully fitting use of the Mountain Goats song “This Year.”

Minding the Gap is now playing in limited release at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Hot Docs Film Festival.

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