Minding the Gap: Pressure Flip, by David Bax
Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap (yes, it’s a terrible title; get over it) is a documentary about skateboarding. It is also a documentary about the lives of skateboarders, for whom skateboarding is a constant, a touchstone. And so, just like its subjects, it takes a skateboarding-first approach, even as it grows to encompass everything about them so fully and warmly that you’ll be sad not to keep checking in on them after the credits roll.
Liu grew up skating with his friends in Rockford, Illinois. As the resident videographer of the group, he has a foundation of footage of himself as a baby-faced, scraped-knee teenager learning how to do tricks while, as a bonus, causing trouble in town. Now a working filmmaker, Liu returns to Rockford to discover a new group of kids doing the same thing. But, as high school dumps them out into adulthood, jobs, parenthood and personal demons begin to fray and diffuse these boys’ bonds. That’s life, though, and, in Liu’s eyes, it’s beautiful even when it’s full of pain.
Liu clearly cut his teeth not only watching but making skate videos. The breathlessly energetic, handheld, following shots and the fisheye lenses of the form make many appearances in Minding the Gap. But, in addition to kickflips and rail grinds, that spirit has evolved to include the inner chaos of unstable early adulthood.
Part of the reason these boys started skating to begin with was a need for freedom, temporary as it may have been. These are mostly poor kids, stuck in a small town and not interested in the things that would let them fit into the mainstream. Flying down streets and around corners with the wind in their ears and then into the air with a chasm of inches between their shoes and the board gave them moments when nothing else mattered. These escapes were fleeting but crucial to survival.
Now they are young men and, for many of them, the presumed emancipation from youth has only led to more responsibilities and a sense that their opportunities, which once seemed abundant but just out of reach, are dwindling by the day. Good time stoner bro Zack, the de facto leader of the group, cuts his long hair short and starts working as a roofer. Keire, the group’s lone black kid and the closest thing Minding the Gap has to a protagonist, struggles to process the death of his father, which only makes him more unsure of his place in a world where it’s unusual for him to be into “white” shit like skateboarding. Yet Keire, ever the optimist (even when fighting back tears), only remarks, “Being black is cool because you get to prove people wrong every day.” Even Keire, though, loses his smile when Zack and his girlfriend have a baby and we start to witness the vicious circle of someone raised by a bad father becoming a bad father himself. It’s here Liu proves that he’s not just a stylistically assured filmmaker, he’s a committed, probing documentarian, willing to ask difficult questions of subjects who have come to like and trust him.
Minding the Gap is a movie about heart and heartbreak, about pain, about Rockford and about a hundred other things. It’s also, most importantly, about skateboarding. If it were about you and your friends, maybe it would be about basketball or board games or fantasy football or TV shows or whatever it is that makes you feel free of everything but each other. This one, though, happens to be about skateboarding.