In one of those unexplainable parallel thinking overlaps, 2018 saw the release of three high-profile arthouse movies about skateboarding: the coming of age teen girl docudrama Skate Kitchen, the coming of age teen boy melodrama Mid90s, and the emotional powerhouse documentary Minding the Gap. Only that third title landed an Oscar nomination, however, as debut filmmaker (and seasoned cinematographer) Bing Liu is up for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards. Pulling from a decade of home movie footage & informal interviews among his close circle of skateboarding buds in the Rust Belt economic rut of Rockford, IL, it’s easy to see how Minding the Gap’s richness in raw material made it a clear standout for awards attention in its weirdly crowded field. Skateboarding is an inherently cinematic subject (meticulously edited highlight reels are an essential part of its DNA) and both Skate Kitchen & Mid90s use that platform to cover a wide thematic range, but neither quiet reach the scope in emotional & political topics addressed in Minding the Gap: domestic abuse, toxic masculinity, addiction, economic desperation, casual racism, and the list goes on. I wouldn’t personally single it out as the most substantial skateboarding film of 2018 (for me, that would be Skate Kitchen), but it’s not at all difficult to see why this is the one from that trio that ate up all the awards nominations & most of the critical attention.
As an act of documentary filmmaking, Minding the Gap often plays like an extended episode of Teen Mom or MTV True Life. That sounds like more of a reductive insult than I intend it to. The music video aesthetic of skateboarding clips and the stubborn continuance of Gen-X mall punk sensibilities into the 21st Century feels very much in-line with the template of the early aughts MTV docuseries. Some of this out-of-fashion, post-MTV aesthetic is a result of Liu’s profiling of a small, intimate subset of skateboarders (his close friends) from their early teens (when that MTV style would’ve been relatively fresh) into their early twenties (now). It’s also just reflective of the economic & cultural rut this underemployed, increasingly desolate end of Rockford has been stuck in. It’s a stalled, rotting aesthetic that also matches the lives of its subjects. As teens, the heartbroken kids of Minding the Gap used skateboarding to escape physically & emotionally abusive home lives to find a more supportive, self-chosen community. They state in plain terms, “Skating is more of a family than my family,” which is essentially the shared thesis of Skate Kitchen & Mid90s. This isn’t a film about that youthful comradery, however, so much as it’s about when these kids grow up into unprepared adults and the full destructive brutality of their childhood roars back into their learned, adult behavior. The exact alcoholism, domestic violence, explosive anger, and parental abandonment that traumatized them as teens echoes thunderously in how they either sink further into the corrosive rut or become brave enough to break out of it.
It’s likely unfair of me to discuss Minding the Gap in terms of the 2019 Oscar pool, 2018’s other skateboarding dramas, or the outdated aesthetics of the mid-00s MTV docuseries – especially since the film is so blatantly personal to Liu and (what’s left of) his crew. The truth is I didn’t find much to be impressed with in the film’s construction or chosen subject, as opposed the more adventurous arthouse style of recent docs like Flames, Shirkers, or (fellow Oscar nominee) Hale County This Morning, This Evening. Like its deliberately out-of-fashion subject matter, however, this lack of stylistic flourish feels perfectly matched to the material at hand. We’re so used to seeing skateboarding highlights meticulously edited into the music video-cool montages that make it seem like the most transcendent sport on Earth. That informal training ground is exactly where Bing Liu cut his teeth as a filmmaker, but Minding the Gap finds him stripping all of that perceived cool away to reach for a difficultly intimate level of honesty & vulnerability. This is a deliberately tough watch that challenges its audience by taking away nearly all the visual aesthetic appeal of skateboarding to examine why else its participants were initially drawn to it. Tougher yet, it bravely asks questions about how the same patterns of abuse & trauma that drove those kids to skateboarding culture are being continued in their own adult behavior – a cycle that only gets uglier the more it’s repeated and the further out of step it becomes with the changing times. This isn’t the flashiest documentary you’ll see all year, nor is it the raddest portrait of skateboarding in recent memory. It is, however, unflinchingly honest & unembarrassed in a way that more than justifies its accolades.