Minding the Gap (2018)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Skate Kitchen (2018)

Most filmmakers’ impulse when setting narrative films in a skateboarding community is to treat skateboarding itself as the subject of the story. Whether it’s as a historically-minded hagiography (Lords of Dogtown) or a quick cash-in on the sub-culture’s marketability (Thrashin’) skateboarding cinema often treats its setting as a narrow-minded novelty, a highly specific range of imagery that’s interesting enough on its own to require no substance under its surface pleasures. Skate Kitchen grinds a thin rail between indulging in that for-its-own-sake novelty imagery and telling an emotionally resonant coming of age story that uses skateboarding as a placeholder for any kind of youthful awakening in confidence, independence, and self-identity. The movie’s most transcendent, memorable sequences are fully submerged in the simple pleasure of skateboard performers filmed with professional skill, but it could have been just as powerful if it were set in the world of tennis, fencing, or competitive foosball. It’s a great movie first and a great skateboarding movie second, a rarity.

Suburban doldrums & parental overbearance weigh on a young teen protagonist who cares far more intensely about watching clips of an all-femme skating crew on Instagram then she does about the immediate world around her. Against her mother’s orders, she sneaks away with her board to NYC by train, meeting up with the Skate Kitchen crew she idolizes, quickly being assimilated into their ranks. There isn’t much plot beyond this initial set-up; the film instead carefully contrasts the intense emotional bonding & betrayals of teenage life with the serene beauty of young women skateboarding around NYC. Although the technology & terminology may be different, Skate Kitchen feels at home with similar Big City coming of age stories like Girlhood & KIDS, except with a much more mannered, less volatile emotional palette. The transition from suburban boredom to boarding around NYC is like Dorothy stepping into the Technicolor landscape of Oz, which is more than drastic enough for the film to get by without resorting to the more sensationalist dramatic details of either Girlhood or KIDS, even if it’s trafficking in similar terrain.

Director Crystal Moselle is entering the world of narrative filmmaking with Skate Kitchen, her second feature after the cinephiliac documentary The Wolfpack. Her debut was often criticized for presenting a fuzzy version of the truth (I even personally called it “just beyond the reach of believability”). It’s wonderful to see her lean into that documentation grey area in its follow-up, which features and is named after a real-life skateboarding crew. The Skate Kitchen have been individually assigned fictional character names in the film, but as a collective they’re essentially playing themselves: an all-femme crew of skateboarders pallin’ around NYC in pursuit of video clips worthy of broadcasting their talents to the world through social media. Rachel Vinberg (as the protagonist Camille) and Nina Moran (as comic relief/consummate shit-stirrer Kurt) are particular standouts, outshining even professional actors Elizabeth Rodriguez & Jaden Smith. That’s partly a result of their natural charisma & exhibitionism, but also due to Moselle’s talent for crafting emotionally resonant, authentic-feeling stories out of real-life Characters. In both The Wolfpack & Skate Kitchen, Moselle has found highly specific, naturally fascinating collaborators and turned their lives into emotionally engaging art just askew from the center of true-life. At this pace, she’s shaping up to have an incredible body of work in just a handful of pictures.

A lot has changed in skateboarding culture since the 80s cash-in of Thrashin’. The fashion, the gender divides, and the terminology of skateboarding are almost unrecognizable between that film & this more artful update (which would have been titled Valid if it were made with that 80s mindset). Both films, matter how authentic, serve as a snapshot of their times, saying just as much about the 1980s & the 2010s as they do about skateboarding. Skate Kitchen doesn’t offer much that you wouldn’t expect from a small budget coming of age drama packed with “non-professional” actors, but the specificities of those personalities & the 2010s NYC skateboarding culture they traffic in allows for frequent moments of beauty & emotional resonance. Old-line skateboarding movies treat the culture as a marketable novelty, whereas Skate Kitchen treats it as a community worth documenting & making familiar though emotional storytelling. Honestly, both tactics are worthwhile in their own way because, on a basic level, skateboarding just looks incredibly cool on camera. Still, it’s a pleasure to see the skateboarding movie emotionally mature at least a little, while still holding onto its prankish spirit of teenage rebellion.

-Brandon Ledet

Thrashin’ (1986)

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I currently work in a kitchen at a bourgie movie theater with a bunch of kids many years my junior who don’t regularly watch movies. What do they do with their all of their time, you ask? They enjoy active, athletic, adventurous, outdoor activities (the horror!). More specifically, they skateboard. Much like with other niche interests like jazz, superhero comics, or people who are super into bikes, skateboarding is a somewhat isolated culture with its own terminology, history, and built-in attitude that can be downright intimidating for folks who aren’t  already in the know. Listening to my coworkers go on about riding fakie or Baker 3 is like listening to comics nerds go back & forth about the faithfulness of movie adaptations or jazz enthusiasts drool over time signatures or whatever. I generally have no idea what’s going on & best can contribute to the conversation as an ill-informed buffoon.

1986’s Thrashin’ is a shrewd, timely cash-in on skateboarding’s inherent cool at the height of one of the sport’s biggest spikes in popularity. It plays a bit like what might have happened if I had tried to write a skateboarding film, buffoonish in its attempts to speak the lingo & capture the sport in a marketable movie about a war-torn romance. Telling the story of two rival skate gangs warring over the territory where they go thrashin’ (which the movie helpfully explains is an aggressive style of skating) the film is laughably unconvincing in its depictions of denim vest-sporting skateboarders dancing on their boards in mosh pits, wearing pads & helmets, and shouting things like “Wild!”, “Acid rock!”, and “Gnarly!” in encouragement to tricks they find impressive. In addition to the “gnarly” skateboarding antics, the film also tackles a Romeo & Juliet love story that most skate-happy teens would probably balk at. A way to get a good idea of how divided the film is in trying to please everyone is to focus on the film’s soundtrack, which has skate-friendly contributions form people like punk heavies DEVO, Circle Jerks, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers (who briefly perform for the camera), but also features long stretches of generic, gentle guitar-solo & keyboards 80s pop. It might’ve been fun for the 80s skateboarders to see (or at least make fun of) their insular culture’s journey to the big screen, but for the most part the film is concerned with courting an entirely different kind of audience.

You don’t have to be in-the-know to enjoy what Thrashin’ has to offer as an over-the-top camp fest. Even a skateboarding buffoon such as myself should find humor in the film’s hopelessly corny dialogue, which includes the The Wild One nod, “What do you trash?” “What do you got?”. The half-cooked romance plot can also be highly amusing, especially in a tender, candlelit lovemaking scene that focuses way more on the male lead’s body that it does on his partner (despite early scenes of macho bikini babe ogling). My favorite aspect of the film its Classic 80s Plot of leading up to The Big Competition (The L.A. Massacre) at the climax. Oh yeah, and somewhere in there is a Warriors-inspired sequence involving “jousting” on skateboards as a means of settling inter-gang disputes. All this and early performances from Josh “Thanos” Brolin & Sherilyn “Audrey Horne” Fenn. Yes, there is plenty to admire here in terms of so-bad-it’s-good silliness & cultural time capsule charm.

I don’t think Thrasin’ has brought me any closer to my coworker’s far-removed world of gnarly! grinds & acid rock! kickflips. Like I said, the film comes mostly from an uninformed outsider’s perspective, giving off the vibe they’d probably get if one of their dads strapped on a helmet & some elbow pads and tackled a vert ramp. Instead, I see Thrashin‘ as a kind of middle ground between their interests (thrashin’) & mine (terrible movies). If nothing else, there’s got to be some value in that.

-Brandon Ledet