Growing up can be hard for any kid, but for some kids it’s harder than others. Some kids grow up amidst trauma, abuse, and pain that many adults can’t even comprehend. And breaking that cycle of abuse — while swimming in a pool of toxic masculinity — can seem all but impossible.
In Minding the Gap (2019), which was released on Hulu in August 2018, director Bing Liu captures these challenges as he gives voice to a group of skater kids growing up in the Rust Belt of America. Stunning visuals meld with emotional heft until, like the skaters, the film tumbles and falls headlong into a dark and frightening reality. As the main characters try to reconcile their history of violence and abuse with the men they’re becoming, it affects them in different ways as they attempt to break the cycle they’re become trapped in.
In the film, Lui — a skateboarder — returned to his hometown to film the lives of two of his childhood friends, Zach and Keire, as they hover on the cusp of manhood. He intercuts the film with vintage footage of them skating together as teenagers, and even includes his own teenage skating, which was “life or death” for him as a kid regularly beaten by a controlling stepfather.
Violence emerges as a commonality between the three characters, with Liu behind the camera revealing as much of himself as the other two. All three grew up with what Keire says was called discipline but, as he explains, “well, they call it child abuse now,” adding that all of it “makes me angry. It just boils my blood.”
All three escaped these controlling fathers by skateboarding, where they formed a “family” of their own.
Zach says that they had to look out for each other, “because no one else was.”
All three are also trying to reconcile that history of violence as they reach an age where they know they need to grow up, move beyond the scenes Lui films of boys behaving badly, of drunkenness on rooftops and firing bottle rockets at each other, of smoking weed and running from the cops, and into — something. They aren’t sure what. As Keire says, “I’m becoming a man and I feel like that’s something I got fucked over on because like my childhood was like a really shitty time.”
Meanwhile, Zach’s girlfriend is having a baby, and he marvels that they will just walk out of the hospital with it, no test, no anything. “We’re gonna have to grow up,” he says, “and it’s gonna suck.” Like the others, he wants to grow up, but he’s like a perpetual “lost boy,” unable to understand what being a man entails — without violence and abuse.
Be warned: some parts of the movie are hard to watch, especially when it comes to the cycle of violence and abuse. The film gets darker as Liu interviews his own brother and mother, revealing his history of childhood violence, and Zach’s girlfriend recalls a time when he beat her so badly he left a scar and broke his coffee table with her body. He falls back into the familiar paths he’s seen charted again and again in his family and his community — the toxic masculinity that degrades women, abandons children, and ultimately devalues men and their emotions.
Keire, meanwhile, is trying to understand his legacy of Blackness with his identity as a skateboarder who has mostly white friends. His abusive — but beloved — father was an anchor to that Blackness, and died when he was 18. He wrestles with this history of love and abuse, of trauma and nurture, throughout the film. Skateboarding is what gets him through, even after he tearfully visits his father’s grave.
Liu developed his talent shooting skate videos, and it shows in the long shots and the surf-like, pure beauty of the boys skating, contrasted with the grittiness of their everyday groping towards something resembling a functional life. Something Zach at time mocks, and other times seems to yearn for, at least for his son.
Minding the Gap is a film full of toxic masculinity, of performative acts meant to hide the hurt the boys are filled with. Keire, for instance, had no idea his stepfather beat him until he reveals it to him on camera. It’s a masterful example of pain shaped into something beautiful through Liu’s camera work and deft editing.
But even those can’t fully hide the troubling implications of the movie. Is this manhood in America? Is this what we have come to, a nation of lost boys searching aimlessly for a masculinity they can’t understand, emotions they numb with drinking and drugs and — in their case — skateboarding? Like Keire, will we begin to make it through? Or will we descend, with Zach, into the same spiral of violence?
Only time will tell.