Criterion Review: MINDING THE GAP

Bing Liu’s superb documentary gets a worthy home video release

Minding the Gap hasn’t left my mind in the two years since it was released. It’s about friendship, abuse, confronting trauma, cycles that need to be broken, skateboarding, and finding strength in vulnerability. The movie captures a moment in time, but it’s a moment that plays out all over the world, a moment that has happened before and will happen again. Minding the Gap is a miracle.

When I first watched the film, I went in knowing nothing about it aside from it being a “skateboarding documentary.” I came away from it blown away by the candidness of the subjects: Keire Johnson, Zack Mulligan, Nina Bowgren, and Liu himself. Watching it now, the vulnerability of everyone involved is still breathtaking. Their pain is tangible and there is strength in allowing yourself to be as open as they are. There’s a moment where Liu and his mother conduct an interview about the abuse they both suffered at the hands of her ex-husband (and Liu’s stepfather). There is no ill will between them, just a desire to understand and be understood, and it’s as moving as anything you’ve ever seen. Their story parallels that of Zack and Nina as they raise a son together. Zack came from a broken home, but he finds himself perpetuating a cycle of violence. Zack has the awareness to know what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, but also desperately wants his son to grow up in a better environment than he did.

Some of the most striking moments in Minding the Gap come from Keire. Growing up as the lone Black kid in a group of largely white friends, Keire often found himself as an outsider. In one quick scene in a backyard, Keire stands silently while a couple friends laugh at a racially insensitive video. It’s a small moment, but Liu holds the camera on Keire, whose silent expression tells us everything we need to know. For the most part Keire goes through the film, and life it seems, with a smile on his face. He’s quick to laugh, but his smile is fragile, teetering on the edge of collapsing at any moment, which we get to see a few times. I don’t know if I’ll ever forget the sight, late in the film, of Keire roaming a cemetery and not finding his dad’s grave.

The skateboarding interludes are transcendent moments of young men being, however briefly, free from the struggles and responsibilities of their day-to-day lives. The way the camera weaves in and around the action, making viewers part of the group, tethered to these guys but also unencumbered. Combined with the score by Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggerio, the film exists in this headspace where time and opportunity is fleeting but everything else carries the weight of the world.

By the time the film gets to its climax, we feel like we’ve spent a lifetime with Keire, Zack, and Liu. That’s a testament to the intimacy of the filmmaking and the subjects. The whole movie is pretty emotional, but by the time we get to the one-two of the boys-to-men montage and the closing bit scored to The Mountain Goats’ “This Year,” there’s this sense that they, and us, have made it and everything is going to be okay. Whether or not that’s true, there’s catharsis in making it to a point where you can see, or have started down, a better path for yourself. It’s a beautiful thing when you find hope, and it’s a perfect note to end on.

The Package

Commentary tracks: There are two commentaries here, one with Liu flying solo and one with the film’s main trio Liu, Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan. The group commentary is a fun listen. It starts off jovial, with the guys laughing and reminiscing about filming. After they get warmed up they start to offer more personal insights, and it’s a nice shift. On the solo track, Liu is more dutiful in talking about the nuts and bolts of putting the film together and creative decisions that were made along the way. It’s a meat and potatoes commentary, but if you like the movie then the peek behind the scenes is quite informative.

Conversation with Nina Bowgren: A Zoom chat between Liu and Nina Bowgren that catches viewers up on what’s going on in Nina’s life in the years since filming ended and the film’s release. Nina is the fourth main character in the film, so this check in is a welcome supplement. The conversation is brief, running less than 20 minutes, but Nina’s experience with the film and domestic abuse makes her voice vital.

Interview with Tony Hawk: Skating icon Tony Hawk sits down to discuss his thoughts on the film, his philanthropy work, and what makes Liu’s film special. Tony Hawk is the one person in the skating world with near-universal name recognition, so it makes sense that he would lend his name to help boost the film’s profile. Although this feature would’ve played just fine as a puff piece, Hawk is generous with praise for the film, and the unique camaraderie in skating culture.

Deleted scenes: Four deleted scenes, including a storyline that was dropped during the editing process. Bing Liu introduces the elisions.

Nước: Bing Liu’s short film from 2010 about two Vietnamese immigrants growing up in America. This is a good story, worth checking out on its own merits. When you compare it to Minding the Gap you can see the thematic and filmmaking seeds being planted.

Essay by critic Jay Caspian Kang: Kang hones in on the specificity of the film and the universality of its themes. It’s a lovely read from a strong writer that is constantly calling attention to the empathy of the filmmaking and the humanity on screen. The platonic ideal for a Criterion essay.

Previous post Field of Streams is TAKING IT TO THE MAX
Next post Now on MUBI: Let THE CRUISE Take You Back to 1990s New York