They grew up together in Rockford, Illinois, three boys united by their love of skateboarding. At a certain point — around middle school, it seems — one of them, Bing Liu, began videotaping their exploits.
A pleasure of “Minding the Gap,” his astonishing debut feature, is to observe how skating and filmmaking flow together. As the young men get stronger, bolder and more dexterous, Liu’s camera skills keep pace, and he captures the sense of risk, freedom and creativity that makes their pastime more than just a hobby.
It’s not only the glue that binds them to one another through tough times but also a source of identity and meaning, a way of life and a lifesaver. “Minding the Gap” is more than a celebration of skateboarding as a sport and a subculture. With infinite sensitivity, Liu delves into some of the most painful and intimate details of his friends’ lives and his own, and then layers his observations into a rich, devastating essay on race, class and manhood in 21st-century America.
This movie is worth a metric ton of punditical generalizations about those topics — not to mention the endlessly mulled-over state of the American heartland — partly because it prefers real-life detail to sweeping statements or overheated arguments. But you can’t help notice that as the three men — Zack Mulligan, Keire Johnson and the filmmaker — get older, their hometown gets rougher, losing jobs and inspiring its young adult residents to dream of escaping. You also notice, because Liu does, that he and his buddies all have experiences with domestic violence.
That is a theme that emerges slowly. Each story is a little different. Keire remembers a father who could be brutally strict and was especially intolerant of skateboarding, but whose death still feels like a profound loss. Liu, for his part, recalls a nightmarish household dominated by a sadistic, alcoholic stepfather who terrorized his wife and children. In both of these cases, the legacy of past abuse seeps into the present, undermining Liu’s relationship with his mother (who is interviewed on camera) and Keire’s self-confidence.
With Zack, things are a little different. In the years covered by the film, he and his girlfriend, Nina, become parents, and tensions emerge in their relationship. At a certain point, though, Liu learns that Zack has hit Nina, and interviews each of them on camera about what happened. His compassion is as remarkable as their candor, and in his capacity as filmmaker and friend he sets an impressive example of how to listen without making excuses.
Throughout “Minding the Gap,” his honesty is matched by his loyalty. Those qualities, combined with his deep personal investment in the story, provide a curious kind of comfort. Even as Nina, Zack, Keire and their families grapple with situations that threaten to push them to the edge of despair, the filmmaking process becomes a quiet expression of solidarity, as the film itself is visible evidence of community.
I would not call this an optimistic movie. The title can be taken to refer to the chasm between hope and reality, or to the fissures that separate people from one another and from their own best selves. But it also suggests the possibility of self-awareness and the healing power of reflection. Liu grants his friends and himself the chance to know themselves better, to think out loud about who they are and who they might be. This is, in every way, a gift, and by the end of “Minding the Gap” there is some evidence that it changed the lives of nearly everyone who participated in it. It can have that effect on viewers as well.
“Minding the Gap,” a documentary directed by Bing Liu. 93 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Opens Aug. 24 at Northwest Film Forum. The New York Times does not provide star ratings with reviews.