Minding the Gap (USA, 2018) [AAIFF 2018]

For his emotional directorial debut, what began as a skate video for twenty-four-year-old Bing Liu became a portrait of three men — Kiere Johnson, Zack Mulligan, and Bing himself — and, through their distinct and shared experiences from teenagers to young adults, of an economically depressed city environment where domestic violence is incredibly prevalent. Functioning as a collective video diary whose focus is divided between Kiere, Zack, and Bing as skateboarding friends and a variation on the coming-of-age film genre, Minding the Gap charts the sometimes rapid, sometimes delayed, but potentially complicated transition from one’s teenage years to adulthood. Where Minding the Gap diverges from run-of-the-mill coming-of-age films is that while it readily concentrates on characters’ individual identities and trajectories, it also carefully locates characters, identities, and trajectories within a particular socioeconomic bracket that is threaded with domestic violence and addresses the damaging equation of masculinity = physical force. Liu constantly and deftly weaves between the lives of Kiere, Zack, and also Zack’s girlfriend at the time Nina with his own experiences in order to broach these complex issues, all without being didactic or tacking on a happy-ending for one and all.

Already in the opening sequence with Kiere, Zack, and another friend, Bing as the behind-the-camera character/presence is acknowledged by his social actors and readily converses with them without showing himself. Thus palpable is a camaraderie between behind-the-camera Bing and his social actors, buoyed by a montage soon after that confirms Bing’s relationship with them as high school friend and skateboarding buddy. In the montage, it is Bing’s video footage of himself (filming) and/or his friends skateboarding across the years that registers the friendship and his filmmaking impulses simultaneously as an important part of his identity as an individual and that of Minding the Gap. Meanwhile, a shot of the city sign of Rockford (Illinois) after the opening credits and title sequence then establishes the location of this friendship and film. For the uninitiated, it is only twenty-some minutes after that the film provides further details about Rockford and subsequently in several other moments, through the use of audio paired with shots of different parts of the city, in between the prominent narrative of the friends, their respective non/familial experiences, and their present states of living: an economically depressed city, one in which the amount of violence that it witnesses has made it the second most dangerous city in the country during the time of filming — most of which are cases of domestic violence — both factors prompting large numbers of inhabitants to move away. With these two opening moments, Liu subtly expresses the intricate linking between experiences and environment that the film ultimately explores, with environment ever and always shifting, multiplying in meaning between domestic, skateboarding, and city. In fact, the film’s intermittent use of several of the city’s billboards that capture fatherhood, kids, and family in utopian slogans for pillow shots is a nearly tongue-in-cheek visual cue for the film’s tough subjects.

As with the coming-of-age film genre, the potential challenges of the transition from teenage years to adulthood are highlighted all the more when set against the high-spirited, devil-may-care antics of the former period. The aforementioned montage, which mixes present-day footage with older footage of skateboarding and hanging out, encapsulates such high-spiritedness for all involved. For it is significantly during the montage that Liu inserts audio of Kiere and Zack stating ‘Skateboarding is more my family than my family’ and ‘We formed a family together, like, to look out for each other because no one else was looking out for us,’ respectively. Such a constructed sense of belonging emerges even more emotionally and to such mesmerising effect in the more than minute-long sequence of Kiere and Zack skateboarding with friends. Through the use of the Glidecam, which Liu practiced on for a year before employing it for the film, he was able to stage several audiovisual and phenomenological coups all at once: accompany his social actors on their skateboards all around the city without skipping a beat, on foot or on a skateboard himself, with the camera therefore on the same level as them; make the camera a mobile, interactive character among others; and above all capture the beautiful movement of skateboarding. This emotional, physical, and audiovisual high concludes rather symbolically with Kiere breaking his skateboard, with the camera then cutting to a shot of ‘This device cures heartache’ inscribed on it.

These ‘salad days’ of teenage energy and carefreeness culminate in the fourth of July fireworks scene on the roof of Zack’s place, where the friends have congregated for a barbecue. In the first of many thoughtful dialogic/aural transitions, the nighttime on-the-roof sequence in which Zack’s roommate yells out ‘God bless America!’ presented in a long shot suddenly cuts to the same angle of the house, this time cloaked in daytime quiet that is suddenly interrupted by a baby’s cries. The salad days are presumably over, at least for Zack, who welcomes a baby boy with Nina and must set aside skateboarding for work for his newly minted family.

Conversation fragments about respective families and experiences of growing up actually dot the film’s narrative landscape, dropping or mentioning a situation here and there, such as Kiere’s experiences of ‘discipline’ from his late father; the conservative environment in which Zack lived under his father, which prompted him to leave home at an early age; a skateshop manager/friend mentioning Bing’s mother in a sit-down interview; and even Nina’s comments about emotional distance in her family. What emerges is a common thread of broken families, which also gives way to (damaging because normalised) conceptions of manhood and fatherhood that continue with Zack and Nina’s frequent separation and reconciliation, laced with physical abuse.

Liu’s structuring and editing of these fragments and their gradual revelation of situations past and present and accumulation of emotional power is nothing short of impressive. Crucial in this respect are the dialogic/aural transitions, which are sometimes corresponding and other times contrapuntal. From Zack’s response that ‘some people got it worse than others’ to Bing’s question about seeing violence at home, to Bing’s family home with his half-brother Kent speaking of ‘unnerving,’ ‘even scarring’ screams that came from Bing’s room when they were children; from the violence in Zack and Nina’s relationship to Bing turning the camera and the film on himself, his mother, and the subject of Bing’s stepfather. The most perturbing transition occurs near film’s end, which moves from a concluding statement from Zack during an interview to a shot of Bing while he interviews his mother about his stepfather and unwittingly, candidly connects family, environment, masculinity, and violence that the film has been delicately building all along.

Minding the Gap is showing on August 2 at the Asian American International Film Festival 2018.