Documentary film “Minding the Gap” is a vivid, fascinating, and touching work you will not easily forget. While it initially interests us with a number of wonderful skateboarding scenes, the documentary looks closer at its struggling human subjects with considerable understanding and empathy, and the result is often powerful to say the least.
After the opening scene showing a trio of skateboarders zipping and zapping along streets and roads, the documentary introduces us to its two main human subjects who are also the close friends of director Bing Liu. They are Kiere Johnson and Zack Mulligan, and a series of old video footage clips shot by Liu show us how often they and Liu hanged around with each other during their adolescent years. Although he was a black kid living in a white neighborhood of Rockford, Illinois, Kiere was willing to skateboard along with other kids, and he and Liu subsequently became best friends to Zack, who was the de facto leader of the bunch.
Zack and Kiere are still enthusiastic about skateboarding, but they have struggled with reality as they grow up to be adults. In case of Zack, he recently became a father, and he attempts to raise his baby son well along with his girlfriend Nina, but he soon comes to face numerous difficulties. Although both he and Nina work hard to support themselves and their baby, they have barely made their ends meet, and they remain stuck in the ongoing economic depression in Rockford just like many other people in the city.
And it turns out that Zack is his own worst enemy. While he comes to us as a smart, likable guy who sometimes makes some self-conscious observation in front of Liu’s camera, we later learn more about his dark sides, and there is an uncomfortable moment when we listen to a recording of another domestic dispute between him and Nina, who eventually decides that enough is enough and then walks away from him along with their baby.
As observing how Zack often stumbles in his attempt to be a responsible adult and caring father, the documentary delves deep into the unhappy childhood years of Zack, Kiere, and Liu himself. At one point, Liu’s half-brother shows us their family house where they once lived with Liu’s stepfather, and he reminiscences about one hurtful moment when he was suddenly abused for no apparent reason. While Zack’s father was not exactly a model father to his son, Kiere still remembers well how frequently he was punished by his father who passed away several years ago, and it is implied that they and Liu were all damaged by each own experience of abuse.
As shown from Zack’s problematic relationship with Nina, it is not so easy to break oneself away from that toxic cycle of domestic violence, and it is often sad to see him letting down not only himself but also his girlfriend and their son. Later in the documentary, it looks like he and Nina are heading to reconciliation, but then they become estranged to each other again, and Zack eventually leaves the city and then tries a new start in Denver, Colorado. Although he looks better than before when he returns to Rockford, he is well aware of what a lousy father he has been to his son, and he has a heartbreaking moment when he makes a bitter observation on his messy life.
In the meantime, the documentary pays considerable attention to Nina, who also goes through her own struggle. She and her son fortunately come to live along with her kind aunt and uncle, but she has to deal with her rocky relationship with Zack, which turns quite sour when she demands the child support from him at the court. Although she still has some feelings toward Zack, her son has become her No.1 priority, and she gets what she demands in the end.
Nina’s story resonates a lot with the interview clips of two other substantial female figures in the documentary. While Kiere’s mother is not so eager to talk about her life, Liu’s mother comes to have a little honest moment as talking with her son, who asks her difficult questions from time to time. Frankly talking about several incidents of domestic abuse she suffered, Liu’s mother also admits that she could not leave her abusive husband because she was afraid of being alone again, and there is a poignant moment when she gives her son a sincere advice around the end of their interview.
Her advice is exemplified well by a moving scene where Kiere visits his father’s grave in a local cemetery and then expresses his personal feelings toward his father. Although he walked away from his father after a rough dispute between them, Kiere finds that his affection toward his father remains same as before, and we are touched as he gets a small but meaningful moment of emotional resolution through this visit.
On the whole, “Minding the Gap”, which deservedly won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year, is another terrific work from Kartemquin films, which has produced many excellent documentary films such as “Hoop Dreams” (1994) and “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” (2016). Like those good documentaries, “Minding the Gap” is full of the sense of life and humanity, and I surely appreciate its numerous human moments to remember. In short, this is indeed one of the best documentaries of this year, and I wholeheartedly recommend to watch it as soon as possible.