Humble to the point of feeling effortless, Minding the Gap is one of the best documentaries to come out in years and easily one of 2018’s best films. Set in Rockford, IL, yet another American town with a shrinking population and a dying middle class, director Bing Liu combines his skate video archives with present day footage of several twenty-somethings — all of whom, as Liu would discover part-way through shooting the film, bear some kind or proximity to domestic abuse.
The thoroughness and grace on display here, much like The Blood is at the Doorstep, is staggering. For his debut feature, Liu compiles and sorts through that he and Joshua Altman edit into something so empathetic, so transcendent of the form. “Magic hour” sequences catch skaters Zack and Keire gliding down parking structures and over train tracks. Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero’s lifting piano seems to give an invisible oomph to kickflips and ollies. There are scenes here that, as Filmspotting‘s Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen point out, are as lyrical as anything this side of Terrence Malick.
A big part of that is Liu’s humble approach, showing us Keire’s tweener status as a person of color in intimate glances and letting Zack ultimately damn himself for startling revelations about his own family life. And Liu is just as vulnerable as one of his own subjects, eventually confronting his stepfather’s abuse in a direct, gut-wrenching sit down with his mother. In a KCRW interview, Liu talks about the relative importance of going “meta” with the documentary form and in hindsight, the film’s inward elements feel inevitable.
A cursory reading might suggest the skateboarding on display here is just a clever ruse, that all along, Minding the Gap lies in wait, to ambush with deep, painful truths. That’s not the case. After watching this — for a second time — with my girlfriend last night, I entertained the idea that Minding the Gap‘s title was about paying attention to one’s distance to their past. I don’t know if it matters how literally one interprets it, though. What’s clear is that this is very much a film about where people have come from and more importantly, where they’re headed.