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.
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.
“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]