Of the three coming of age skater movies released in 2018, no one is going to pay attention to Minding the Gap. A documentary released over the summer to little press but rapturous response from those who caught it, Minding the Gap follows three young men as they bond over skateboarding and share insights into the tough lives. Now, with Jonah Hill’s Mid90s being released into theaters, it’s once again a hot subject. Luckily, Minding the Gap is just one Hulu subscription away, easily viewable by anyone who wants to take the time to check it out. And boy, is it ever worth that time.
Early on in Minding the Gap, you notice that one of the skaters, Bing Liu, is constantly recording everything that’s going on. This is why the documentary exists. Liu, an aspiring director even at a very young age, just always let his camera roll, soon realizing that he was stitching together a deep and involving look at what the lives of these three poor kids from Rockville, Illinois have become. Zack, the charismatic and lanky white kid, is probably the most outspoken of the group. He seems to be enjoying life the most. He’s got a kid on the way with his girlfriend, and he’s always got a smile on his face. But the realities of child-rearing hit him hard, and we’re forced to watch as his life and relationship begin to disintegrate in front of his eyes. Keire is the youngest of the group, and juggles the need to get a job and support his family with skating, his best option for self-care. And Liu tries valiantly not to be defined by the abusive actions of his step father and the pain and hurt his mother unwittingly inflicted on him by marrying a cad.
So yes, Minding the Gap is a documentary about skateboarding, but that would be such a reductive and myopic view of the end product Liu has stitched together from his years of documenting his friends living their lives. He may not have set out to put together a defining look at life on the fringes in middle America, one that cuts across racial lines (white, black, Asian) and shows that sometimes, the things that unite us are the broken homes and abuse that we try to escape. Minding the Gap is often rather depressing, a slow motion car crash you want to do anything to prevent it. These boys (and Zach’s girlfriend) have to contend with some of the toughest obstacles life can throw at them, suffering physical and mental abuse from all sides without the money, the coping skills or the support structures to help them come out of it okay. All they have is themselves, each other, and their boards. It’s perhaps telling that Keire’s skateboard is emblazoned with the words “This device cures heartache.” There’s plenty of that to go around.
This film easily could have wallowed in the earned pity of the lives these kids live. Zach does some pretty terrible things dealing with the fallout of his new fatherhood, at one point running away to Denver to escape his responsibilities. No one in Minding the Gap is perfect, but who among us is perfect anyway? Life is messy and compromised and difficult. But those hardships make us who we are, becoming the foundation of our humanity. This is Liu’s thesis statement, a look at how hard it is to defeat the human spirit. No matter what he goes through, Keire comes through with that infectious smile at the end. So much has been written about the plight of the Midwest, ravaged by unemployment, crumbling infrastructure and economic anxiety. These kids live that plight every day, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to stop living.
It’s tough not to compare Minding the Gap to the highest profile of this year’s coming of age skater movies, Mid90s. Mid90s has all the buzz behind it, featuring the directorial debut of Jonah Hill and the distribution might of indie darlings A24. And the similarities between the two are oddly striking. MID90s is set earlier than Minding the Gap (but not much earlier), taking place in, well, the mid 90s, and covering only a couple months in the life of young Stevie’s summer vacation. Minding the Gap, on the other hand, is essentially a real life Boyhood, shot over the course of 12 years purely because Liu’s camera was always rolling. Mid90s has a videographer too, a kid only referred to as “Fourth Grade,” who turns their escapades into a grainy fisheye lens skate video that runs at the film’s climax. And I think it’s that final product that makes for such a stark contrast between the two. Though both Mid90s and Minding the Gap are about kids trying to navigate the real world, escaping broken homes and terrible lives with skateboards and drinking and drugs, there are precious few smiles to be found at the end of Minding the Gap. This is real life. There are consequences.
Hill feels very much like an outsider trying to live vicariously through his subjects. He grew up in the area portrayed in Mid90s, but he was a rich private school kid, far flung from the broken homes and latchkey lives of the people he’s bringing to life. He shoots his movie in 4x3 to make it feel more authentic than it is, like some long lost skate video unearthed 20 years later. But Minding the Gap has all the legitimacy that Mid90s lacks. This isn’t a time capsule or an exercise in nostalgia. Minding the Gap cuts to the very core of what it means to be human, what it means to persevere when life does nothing but throw fastballs directly at your head with no respite. Sometimes, all you can do is grab your skateboard and let the rest of the world melt away. It’ll be waiting for you in the end, sure, but for a few blissful moments, nothing else matters.