Skating on Thin Ice: Bing Liu’s Powerful, Autobiographical Domestic Abuse Doc
Bing Liu’s documentary Minding The Gap contains more entertainment—and more authenticity—than most narrative features achieve in their very best moments. First-time director, DP, co-star and co-editor Liu explores the down-and-out world he shares with his two best friends in Rockford, Illinois: all three have tumultuous family lives; all three survive by skateboarding. “This device cures heartache,” reads the back of one skateboard.
Heartache is abundant in Liu’s world, and his spectacular skating montages are a euphoric release. What at first seems akin to Lords of Dogtown evolves into a grippingly painful, powerfully resilient drama: an unforgettable coming-of-age film about ‘lost boys’ who need to grow up. In sum, this is vérité, with artistic intentions: an intuitive mix of motion and emotion. We wind up caring more about these characters than any fictional trio—and by the end of the film, we want a sequel.
Liu introduces his characters with choice clips from their past, revealing camaraderie, humor and vulnerability—all in the familiar vernacular shared by best friends. Immediately, we fall in love with 17-year old Keire, the always-laughing, sole black kid in the group; 23-year old Zack, the charmer and soon-to-be-Dad; and 24-year old, self-effacing Liu himself. As the film unfolds, we learn that all three were abused as kids, and that this abuse has carried over into their adult lives. Liu captures it all with remarkable sensitivity: the trust they share allows for amazing, chance character moments, lovingly sifted from a huge trove of footage. One highlight is Keire’s desperate attempt—pushing through tears—to break a rival’s skateboard after a humiliating fight; equally harrowing are glimpses of Zack’s increasingly abusive relationship with his pregnant girlfriend, Nina. In the style of Hoop Dreams (filmmaker Steve James also Executive Produced here), the lives of these marginalized characters highlight bigger issues: race, social class, education, toxic masculinity … even the fleeting notion of the inner-child.
Liu’s elegant, gliding camerawork is worthy of Thrasher Magazine. His thoughtful use of montage (with co-editor Joshua Altman) manipulates subtext and tone. He makes funny moments disturbing, he fills darkness with light—and while he shifts nimbly between life in the streets and family drama, we’re glued to our seats. Even the visual comedy conveys truth: a shot of skateboards stacked in the corner of a restaurant is the closest these kids get to a family dinner. It certainly helps that Liu knows his characters better than most fiction screenwriters: he coaxes, he captures—and even shares his own vulnerability by filming himself while he interviews his mom. When she reveals details about his traumatic childhood, it turns into more of a gut-punch than if he told us himself.
Skateboarding pun aside, the film’s title Minding The Gap draws attention to the generational divide between abusers and abused. The hope is that these kids can break the cycle … even Zack, who has become an abuser himself. Life hasn’t been easy for any of them—but just as his friends’ hyperbolic smiles and laughs help keep spirits high, Liu maintains a cautious optimism. Even more impressive, he bridges the gap between detached documentarian and conscientious friend. His experience becomes a healing process, both for him and his friends, and for us: a rare tour-de-force where we actually get to inhabit the filmmaker’s conscience.
Reviewed on January 22nd at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival – U.S. Documentary Competition. 98 Minutes