Minding the Gap (2018)

25 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It figures that in 2018, a year with three fine indie films about skateboarders (“Skate Kitchen,” “Minding the Gap,” and “Mid90s”), the best of them would be the lone documentary, “Minding the Gap.” “Skate Kitchen” and “Mid90s” succeeded by evoking realism, while “Minding the Gap” simply captures it. By default, I suppose that makes it the best (although I know it can be argued that it’s much trickier to bring about natural realism in fiction)—when you know what’s happening on-camera is happening to real people, and you’re invested in their personal lives, it’s all the more impressive. And “Minding the Gap” works particularly because it introduces us to some of the most interesting film characters of 2018. And they’re real.

Some people need an outlet for their turmoils and frustrations. For the ones in “Minding the Gap,” that outlet is skateboarding. They go skating in the park. They go skating in the street. They trespass on private property just for the thrill of skating in places they’re not supposed to. And they’re good at it, because they’ve practiced it since childhood. Sure, they slip and fall every now and again, but they get right back up and keep going. (Obvious metaphor, I know.) But who are they off the boards?

Zack Mulligan has the bad-boy vibe that adds to his charm and charisma. But when he’s drunk or stoned, that’s when his persona turns surly, disturbed, and violent. He’s married and has a baby son, and it’s very clear to us (and his wife) that he’s unfit to be a parent. He cares for his child, but he has trouble with the responsibility. And he’s too much for his wife, Nina, to bear as well, and the feeling’s mutual. One of the heavier moments in the film is when we learn that Zack has physically abused Nina, having escalated from a loud argument. A revealing moment in the film is when Zack states to the camera that “bitches” need to be hit from time to time…

Kiere Johnson supports his single mother by working as a dishwasher. He still suffers the emotional scars brought on by abuse long ago, and he tries to control his own anger issues. (An example of his anger goes back to childhood, as seen in a home-movie in which he spends a good amount of time breaking a skateboard for spite.)

Bing Liu is the film’s director, and these two (Zack and Kiere) are his best friends since childhood (which means they’re more than comfortable being documented by his cameras all the time). Bing has his issues too, which are brought up as he interviews his immigrant mother about a time during which his stepfather abused him. (Domestic abuse is a common theme in this film, as it’s a common theme in all their lives.) The most emotional moment comes when the mother tearfully tells her son she should have been more aware of things back then.

Bing, Zack, and Kiere have been friends since middle school through their love of skateboarding, and it’s clear that Bing is saying that they skate to feel the freedom they wish they had all the time. It is not just a hobby to them. All three of them live in Rockford, Illinois, which like most small towns, is depressing, poor, and dying. But they carry on because they feel they have no alternative.

Bing’s camera captures everything effectively, the editing is fantastic, the music score is suitably low-key and somber, and we have four people (Bing, Zack, Kiere, Nina) whose lives we’re invested in because we desperately want things to turn out better for them in the future. But in the end, you realize “Minding the Gap” was Bing’s way for his friends to express themselves, and I think that’s a very good start.

The film is available on Hulu.

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