Boys become men in Minding the Gap, Bing Lius perceptive new documentary filmed in his hometown of Rockford, Illinois—where, as snippets of newscast inform us, half the working population earns less than minimum wage, unemployment is high, violent crime is a continual terror, and getting by, for many, is altogether an uphill struggle. Glimpses of Rockford confirm it: a downtown thats improbably quiet, rows of abandoned homes, and moving vans hinting at residents rampant flight from the city.
Which isnt to say theres no room for hope here. Bing, who moved to Rockford when he was about 8, has been training his camera on his best friends, Keire and Zack, since they began skateboarding together as kids. And of the many things hes captured over the years, the boys joy as they coast through downtown Rockford, or smoke and drink and hang out in each others backyards, or skate away the dejection of their home lives, resonates with passionate clarity.
But what also resonate are the problems skating cant solve—the things Minding the Gap is ultimately about. Bing, weaving together informal interviews with his friends over the years, as well as lyrical skate footage, candid hangouts, and even more candid bouts of pain and disappointment, has made a movie about seemingly every nook of his and his friends young lives. Its a movie about the fragility of friendship, generational cycles of abuse, and the precariousness of growing up to be a man when youve had little guidance to that end. Zack, the more troubling of Bings two friends, puts it best: “When youre a kid, you just do—you just act. Then somewhere along the line, everyone loses that.”
Theres no plot to this movie, really—just a stuttering series of revelations. The movie catches the three men on the cusp of growing up, and openly gives off the impression of being in transition, morphing from a document of their troubled but also play-filled childhoods into a testament to their flawed adulthoods. At the start of the movie, Zacks girlfriend, Nina, is pregnant, making him suddenly anxious over the future. He wants his kid to have a good life, he says, but he doesnt feel like hes done enough in his own life to make that possible. Early on, we see him taking a computerized exam to get his G.E.D., and the experience is discouraging. It isnt long before you realize that most shots of him in the movie show him drinking.
Keire, meanwhile, whos black, was an angry boy—repeatedly beaten by his father—who seems at first destined to become an aimless man. “I just dont want to work at some job I hate for the rest of my life,” he says—but Rockford seems unlikely to offer him much else. Hes got This device cures heartache written on one of his skateboards; in footage we see of him when hes younger, hes often breaking things, or on the defense after getting bullied. Hes the one who says, “Skateboarding is more of a family than my family.”
And then theres Bing himself—the voice behind the camera—who reveals to Keire late in the movie that he decided to make a documentary because he realized that this was a pain they shared. “I was physically disciplined by my stepfather,” he says, “and it didnt make sense to me. And I saw myself in your own story.”
We dont hear directly from Bing about his abuse. We hear, instead, from the owner of the skate shop, who tells Bing that he always sensed skateboarding, for him, had high stakes, as if it were “a life or death thing.” We also hear about it from Bings younger half-brother, Kent, who, in one of the most chilling moments in the film, recounts a time that he heard unnerving, anguished screams coming from Bings room when they were kids.
Bing doesnt show as much of himself on-camera as he does of his friends—but his experience is built into the D.N.A. of the movie, which courses through the freeing highs of times spent skateboarding with friends to the painful lows of their domestic lives and struggles with employment. When he does show himself, the choice is so deliberate it cant help but cut to the bone—as in the only deliberately stagy part of the movie, when he interviews his mother, and asks, “Did you know that the first time I was ever alone with him, thats when he grabbed me?” “I dont know what to say now,” his mom says. “Its all past.” Dennis, Bings stepfather, abused her, too.
Did Bing know, when he decided to make this movie, that Zack, too, had potentially become an abuser? Another friend, we learn, has filmed what sounds like a violent argument between Zack and Nina; Bing asks them both about it, but doesn't reproduce the actual footage here. The movie has smartly been cut up, so that Bings interview with his mother is interspersed throughout and re-emerges at key moments. When we return to that interview after learning that Zack may be violent, you can feel that something in the movie has shifted.
Inevitably, Bings own experience colors how he feels about his friend. But in a movie that has by this point shown how frequently the abused become the abusers, itd be impossible to narrow Bings feelings down to a singular takeaway. Hes trying to understand—and he seems to realize that the answers are in what hes been filming all along.
“You cant beat up women. But some bitches need to get slapped sometimes,” says Zack, late in the movie, beer in hand. “Does that make sense?” Bings answer, one senses, is to include this line in the movie—and to strive to portray Zack, whom he loves, honestly.
This makeshift family of boys drifts apart, somewhat, by the end of the film. But the remarkable thing about Minding the Gap is how much of their lives it seems to contain. In a world full of images—full of people recording themselves and their friends doing dumb shit, or documenting attractive versions of themselves—Bings movie stands out for the complexity of its integrity, and its ability to reveal his own experiences empathically. Its a movie that only someone sharing in this pain could have made.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:In Search of Skateboarding Spirit: National Geographics Images of Skaters Around the WorldBANGALORE, INDIA
An empty, old skate park in Bangalore, India. The park required paid admission for entrants. “None of the local kids could ever afford to get in there,” says Mehring. Al Partanen, pictured here, is a skater who worked with Levis to build a free public skate park next door, with construction pictured in the background.
Photo: Photograph by Jonathan Mehring.CENTRAL HIGHLANDS, VIETNAM
Mehring stumbled upon a group of kids in a small town located in Vietnam with a few of their own homemade wooden skateboards. Having been unable to communicate in Vietnamese and without a translator, Mehring eventually earned their trust. “We got our boards off our motorbikes and we just started skating in the street and they eventually caught on. They were on our boards and we were on theirs, falling into the street. It was pretty hilarious.”
Photo: Photograph by Jonathan Mehring.ROTTERDAM, HOLLAND Mehring captured Jake Johnson hitting a front-side kick-flip over a shipbuilding yard in Rotterdam, from the roof of a crane about 100 feet above the ship. “We spoke to security who introduced us to a project manager who happened to be an ex-skater,” says Mehring. “And he was like, Man, if you guys want to skate here, I have this supply barge with all this wood on it. Do it by all means.”Photo: Photograph by Jonathan Mehring.PINE RIDGE, SOUTH DAKOTA, U.S.A.
A group of Native American skaters at Wounded Knee 4-Directions Skate Park at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. “A lot of them have family trouble and the skateboarding there has been a way to alleviate the epidemic of teenage suicide, alcoholism, and drugs,” says Mehring. “They seemed very happy to me when they were in the skate park. They would show up in the morning and they would skate until after dark.”
Photo: Photograph by Jonathan Mehring.BAKU, AZERBAIJAN
A layover in Baku, Azerbaijan, with his friends Daryl Angel and Donovan Pisocopo on one of their frequent skateboarding trips. “This really defines what we were feeling about our travels at the time. Too tired to abide by the rules of the chair . . . we were just done.”
Photo: Photograph by Jonathan Mehring.ORDOS CITY, CHINA
A security guard looks on at Paul Battlay as he attempts a boneless in a tunnel in Ordos City, a nearly empty ghost town, photographed by Jake Darwen.
Photo: Photograph by Jake Darwen.Photo: Photograph by Jonathan Mehring.PreviousNext