“I am going to make it through this year if it kills me.” – The Mountain Goats
From the closing theme song to first-time filmmaker Bing Liu’s remarkably honest and moving documentary “Minding The Gap,” that lyric’s mordant mix of hope and fatalism echoes the film’s four protagonists’ lives with heartbreaking accuracy. The film, playing at Space Gallery on Sunday, at first doesn’t seem all that weighty, following a trio of young Rockford, Illinois, skateboarders as they nervously scale the outside of a building in order to skate on the roof. It’s the sort of youthful recklessness that skating videos are made of, with the three friends – Zack, Keire and filmmaker Liu – delighting in their mutual transgression.
But “Minding The Gap” – already the winner of a slew of awards and shortlisted for the best documentary Oscar – gradually reveals itself to be one of the most intimate, sensitive and surprisingly probing portraits of not just skating culture, but the way in which young men gravitate toward self-made families when their actual families let them down.
When the film begins, Zack is in his early 20s, the prototypical white stoner skater, putting off adulthood as long as possible, even though his girlfriend, Nina, is pregnant with their child. Keire is 17, a lanky, smiling black teenager who’s found a surrogate family and sense of purpose in his skating crew, even as his loving mother tries to manage a chaotic household. Liu himself forms the mostly unseen third member of the group, his role as videographer transforming over the years, his keen eye graduating from GoPros and skate tricks to professional equipment and growing insight into the group dynamics and pitfalls of the trio’s relationship.
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Expertly edited by Liu (alongside Joshua Altman) from years worth of footage, “Minding The Gap” is built around not just the friends’ bond, but how that bond grew out of startlingly similar home lives. A news report heard in the film talks about how the recession-blighted Rockford is home to a disproportionate amount of domestic violence, and we learn how Zack, Keire and Bing’s childhoods were beset with varying degrees of it. “Well, they call it child abuse now,” explains the open-faced Keire haltingly at one point, a matter-of-fact common denominator that Liu reveals ran through all of their lives – and seems to be repeating itself in Zack’s tumultuous relationship with Nina.
Bing Liu, for a first-time documentarian, is astoundingly adept at getting his friends and family (and friends’ families) to open up to his camera – honestly, he’s a major filmmaker in the making. Unobtrusively pressing Zack and Nina about their increasingly fraught relationship and Keire about his own painful memories of his father, Liu never strikes a forced or false note, and his very occasional offscreen questions on touchy subjects are invariably met with the sort of honesty reserved for true intimates. The only time we see Liu for an extended period is when he takes his now-elaborate camera setup to interview his mother, the extent of whose knowledge of the true nature of his terrifyingly abusive stepfather looming over their every exchange.
There’s a touch of real-life “Boyhood” to Liu’s film, as we see Zack’s young son age into toddlerdom, and Zack and Keire cope with the changing nature of the group and their evolving circumstances. Keire Johnson is the sort of kid you root for, whose openness and present-day amiability is yet informed by Liu’s video footage of the younger Keire furiously fighting with a skate park bully. For him, skating – shown at intervals through the film in gracefully exuberant montages – has brought a sense of peace and accomplishment he’s never gotten anywhere else. He also touches on the issues of being the lone black kid in his peer group, his explanation of how he keeps all his driving documents at the ready in his first car joked away with his friends. “I could die, like really easily,” coming from this young man, is absolutely chilling in Keire’s acceptance of his reality.
Liu’s most insightful and delicate filmmaking surrounds Zack, the older boy whose rebellious example united them – and now reveals itself to have a seriously problematic side. For the hard-drinking Zack, Nina’s pregnancy elicits the telling statement “I feel like, somewhere along the line, there should be a class for this,” as we see his doting affection for his infant son curdle into resentful, profanity-laden tirades against the boy’s mother. Liu asks Nina gently why she puts up with Zack’s occasional physical abuse, and she urges him not to pursue the matter with his friend. Liu, whose own childhood was marked by a mother unwilling to confront the damage being done by an abusive father figure, does manage to corner Zack finally, in an exchange as raw and yet human as you’re likely to see on film this year.
At one point, one of the subjects is seen watching “Kids,” Larry Clark’s infamous indie film about a racially diverse group of disaffected skateboarders. “Minding The Gap” is like “Kids,” if the director weren’t a sensationalistic moralist but a thoughtful, talented and clear-eyed peer, interested not in exploiting his subjects’ pain and misbehavior for shock value, but in examining how their experiences have shaped them – and what they are doing to change that dynamic. It’s warm, it’s painful, and it’s deeply affecting. And it’s the debut of an extremely talented new filmmaker in Bing Liu, who will be answering questions via Skype at the Space screening, as conducted by young Portland filmmaker (and co-founder of this year’s youth-led Rolling Tapes film and art event) Daniel Kayamba.
On a personal note, this is also the final Space event programmed by departing Space co-founder Jon Courtney, who has brought more wonderful, challenging films to Maine in the past decade or so than anyone else. Courtney’s still programming PMA Films for us, but come and bid him a fond and grateful farewell, too.
7 p.m. Sunday. Space Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland, $8. space538.org
Coming to local screens
Thursday: “Coraline.” As part of PMA’s celebration of the weird and wonderful stop-motion films of animation studio Laika, come check out this fantasy based on Neil Gaiman’s novel. And look for other Laika films “Paranorman,” “The Boxtrolls” and “Kubo & the Two Strings” soon.
Until Wednesday, Jan. 2: “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Melissa McCarthy is headed for an Oscar nomination for her portrait of Lee Israel, real-life, semi-successful celebrity biographer turned literary forger.