Raw and Riveting Documentary About a Lot More than Skateboards
The Criterion Collection 1061
While best known for their restorations of classic films, once in a while The Criterion Collection deems something recent worthy of its attentions—such as Minding the Gap (2018), the first feature-length film to be directed by Chinese-American cameraman Bing Liu. It’s less “a skateboarding movie” than a riveting documentary on the lasting effects of domestic abuse.
Liu, born in China in 1989 and himself a skateboarder, set out to interview skateboarding aficionados across the US, but ended up concentrating on himself and two friends he grew up with in Rockford, Illinois, a Rust Belt city that local news reports indicate is plagued by an alarming number of violent crimes triggered by domestic disputes. In addition to Liu, the main characters are Zack Mulligan, a good-looking, charismatic white boy neglected by his family; and Keire Johnson, an affable and optimistic African-American kid from a fatherless, abusive home.
Skateboarding provided the three friends escape from the realities of their daily lives. The sport may not address the past or the future, but it makes the present more bearable. One striking image is a shot of a skateboard on which is scrawled “this device cures heartache.” Keire Johnson puts it succinctly: “I could seriously be on the verge of having a fucking mental breakdown, but as long as I’m able to go out and skate, I’m completely fine.” Indeed, the scenes of skating are filled with a sense of joy, their focus as much on faces as on incredibly virtuosic moves.
But as Liu began to tell Mulligan’s and Johnson’s stories, he realized that he also had to come to grips with his own, which involves child abuse. This leads to an emotionally distanced yet searing interview with his mother, Menyue, in a segment filmed by an assistant photographer, so that Liu’s own reactions could be recorded.
A few of the earliest shots seem a trifle dated, technically, but overall, the consistency of video quality in a film shot over 12 years on a tiny budget and with a variety of cameras is remarkable, and Criterion has transferred it all to BD with their usual high level of quality. The images are generally sharp and crisp, with good color saturation—Mulligan’s Hawaiian shirt is realistically vivid. The soundtrack, too, is clean and clear, for the music score by Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero as well as the interviews and looping.
I highly recommend Minding the Gap. It offers no solutions to its subjects’ problems, instead demonstrating how domestic abuse can profoundly influence a child’s life into adulthood, and then be perpetuated as the abused become abusers. Told in a disarmingly simple manner, it makes its points without belaboring them, and manages to be entertaining while doing so. Hats off to Criterion for taking a break from the established classics and devoting their energies to a film that might someday become one.
The extras include two commentaries: one by Liu, Mulligan, and Johnson, and the other by Liu alone. Each is breezy, entertaining, and informative. In addition, there’s a follow-up conversation between Liu and Zack’s partner, Nina; an interview with professional skateboarder Tony Hawk; and another with Liu, executive producer Gordon Quinn, and producer Diane Moy Quon. There are also four outtakes as well as Nu’ó’c (2010), Liu’s experimental, 20-minute documentary about young Vietnamese immigrants living in the US. It’s all topped off with one of the best booklet essays I’ve seen from Criterion: “What It’s About,” by freelance journalist Jay Caspian Kang.
Be sure to look for: Billboards around Rockford that advance the story; e.g., “you don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent.”
. . . Rad Bennett