Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Sunday, February 17, 2019

OSCARS 2019: Minding the Gap (2018)

I still have so many mixed feelings with the wealth of content being produced by various streaming companies. However, the boom has certainly been good for documentaries. It's become increasingly common for the Academy to fill the Best Documentary category out with picks from various streaming services. In recent years, Netflix has provided “13th,” “Strong Island,” and “Icarus.” (The latter of which undeservedly got a win.) Amazon premiered “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.” And now Hulu has scored a nomination with “Minding the Gap.” While most of these are highly relevant documentaries discussing important, modern issues, Bing Liu's documentary is more about classical themes of coming-of-age, struggling against poverty, and familial trauma.

“Minding the Gap” follows three friends and their relations as they grow up in a small American town, gripped with unemployment and few options. Bing, Zack, and Kiere have always bonded over their mutual love of skateboarding. As they leave their teen years behind and become twenty-somethings, they each face new challenges. Kiere tries to find steady work, so he can move out of his Mom's house. Zack fathers a child and finds cohabiting with the mother difficult, largely due to his increased dependency on alcohol. Bing, meanwhile, tries to process a traumatic childhood of living with an abusive stepdad. In fact, all the boys have abuse in their past. And now history looks to repeat itself, with the way the increasingly volatile Zack treats his partner.

You know why I really liked “Minding the Gap?” It's basically a real life Larry Clark movie. Most of the less salacious elements are present: Young adults living in a dead-end small town, struggling with the new responsibilities of adulthood, substance abuse, romance, and mental instability. Oh yeah, and lots of skateboarding. Of course, this is real life and not the deranged shouting of an old pervert. So there's a lot less orgies, barely legal nudity, and melodramatic violence in “Minding the Gap.” However, the comparison is apt. Liu acknowledges the debt he owes Clark by showing his friends watching “Kids” at one point. And you can tell Liu has cinematic ambitions, as many of the doc's scenes have an overly staged, scripted quality to them. (Zack, at one point, even acknowledges the awkward set-up of making a documentary.)

While it's more story-driven than a lot of documentaries these days, “Minding the Gap” still counts as an issues doc of sorts. The common thread of domestic abuse in the boys' lives forms a thematic backbone. Liu takes care to show the mental anguish him, his brother, and his friends feel because of the abuse. They recount harrowing stories of being belittled, hit, or punished. Yet what's most chilling is how commonplace and unextraordinary this abuse appears. Kiere's mom is discouraged from being interviewed by her off-screen boyfriend, who is obviously threatening her into silence. The way alcoholism and self-hatred plays a role in Zack's own unambiguously abusive behavior is acknowledged without letting him off the hook. While the film is fascinated by the cycle of hurt that causes this behavior to grow, Liu's film is at its best when showing this awful behavior as part of everyday life for folks in an impoverished community.

You get the impression that Liu didn't totally intend to document the role violence has played in the lives of him and his friends. “Minding the Gap” was likely born out of the skateboarding footage he was already making. Yet the two elements are undeniably intertwined. To these boys, skateboarding provides a release. While zipping through the air and up ramps on a board, they feel a sense of freedom that escapes them in their day-to-day lives. There is a definite lack of control for them normally but, when skateboarding, they feel totally in charge of their fates. Liu emphasizes this with exciting and often handheld footage of the guys moving on their boards. It's a nice side note to the doc's heavier moments, the way it captures how people escape from the doldrums of their lives in a place like this.

“Minding the Gap” does become a bit of a miserablist slog in its second half, as the focus turns more towards the boys recounting their abusive childhoods. During a montage of the interviews, getting in detail about this stuff, the film almost becomes unbearable. It then ends afterwards in a sudden way, with the required post-script talking about where everyone is now. Still, “Minding the Gap” has some grabbing, stirring moments. Liu definitely achieved his goal of documenting the struggles of life in a stagnating small town, the triumphs and failures his friends have endured. I think Larry Clark would like it too, though he'd probably say it needs more dick shots and murder. [7/10]

No comments: