The easy way to describe Bing Liu’s moving documentary Minding the Gap would be to say it’s a harder-edge Boyhood. Like Richard Linklater’s fictional Best Picture-nominee, Liu follows about a decade in the lives of his subjects. But unlike Linklater’s extraordinary movie, Liu has no place to run for comfort. It’s a messy, unpredictable affair as he tries to cobble together a look at the abuse, neglect, and development in his life, the lives of his friends Zack and Keire, and their families. What’s magnificent about Minding the Gap is how Liu tries to shape his story without ever putting it into a neat little box. He’s not afraid to confront his friends or shine a light on the harsher aspects of their upbringing. It’s a remarkable experience to watch these three boys grow into men and try to find their way in a world of few opportunities and fewer role models.
As teenagers, Bing, Zack, and Keire are united by their love of skateboarding, and Bing always has a camera around to film himself, but more often, his friends. Part of that is just catching the cool skateboarding tricks his friends can do, but it’s also to get a glimpse at how they have fun in general. But as the boys get older and start to become men, Bing starts asking harder questions and shaping the footage into a real documentary. We learn about how all three were physically abused by their fathers, but that they take that pain as just a regular part of growing up. As they continue to grow, they must face their own demons, whether it’s Keire dealing with his father’s death, Zack’s refusal to mature despite becoming a father himself, and Bing wrestling with his own history of abuse and how it affected him and his mother.
And yet for all of its weighty themes, I wouldn’t define Minding the Gap as a “downer” movie as much as its honestly confronting the difficulties of growing up especially when your role models let you down, and then you’ve started to let yourself down. Liu shows himself as a documentarian beyond his years by letting his story take shape and following where it goes rather than hewing the narrative to fit a predetermined point. The three men share a history of abuse, but rather than try to parallel all their stories, he shows how they diverge.
The hardest story is arguably Zack’s, a charismatic guy who cannot get his life together and he knows it. Rather than try to protect his friend, Liu puts the truth of the story at the forefront even if it goes to ugly places like Zack hitting Nina, his ex-girlfriend and mother of their child Eliot. You can’t help but cringe when Zack tries to justify the abuse and says, “You know, sometimes bitches gotta get smacked,” and yet the film never writes him off completely, which would be the easy thing to do. Minding the Gap shows that abusers aren’t just other people; they’re fathers, sons, and friends. Zack isn’t a sadist, but he’s someone clearly filled with a lot of anger, resentment, and regret.
Compare that to Keire and you have a story of someone who may be good friends with Zack and Bing, but he’s on his own path. He has to wrestle with being the black kid in a friend group composed largely of white kids, what his racial identity means, and the legacy of losing his father when they had a complicated relationship. However, Keire never lets that anger consume him, instead finding ways to better his life, work hard, and become successful. We’d like to think that our friends grow up at the same pace as us, but we know that’s not true, and Minding the Gap shows that gap in searing detail.
Liu makes an interesting decision not to look at himself as closely as Keire and Zack. Arguably, it avoids making the doc too biographical and self-indulgent. He wants to be the floating camera, but he also doesn’t want to push his omniscience too far. At one point, Zack asks if they’re doing a shoot where he acts like Liu isn’t there or if it’s one where he can talk to the camera, and Liu says either way is fine. He wants the story to unfold, but you can see that he’s guarded about his own story even if he’s willing to open up about the abuse he, his half-brother, and his mother faced at the hands of his step-father. We don’t get the details in Liu’s story that we do in Keire and Zack’s, but he provides the connective tissue that brings everything together.
Like life itself, Minding the Gap has no easy answers. There’s no big moment of catharsis, and there’s no way to bring together friends who have drifted apart. Liu doesn’t see it as his job to “fix” his friends as much as he’s there as an observer who’s trying to learn and see both the similarities and the differences. It makes Minding the Gap a rich, vibrant experience that can be at turns both heartbreaking and uplifting.