Late into Minding the Gap, one of its subjects learns the true purpose of the documentary and remarks that it is a form a free therapy. So cleverly does Bing Liu frame the film at the start that we don’t realize what he’s up to for quite a while. At first, for instance, I thought this was going to be a doc lauding the escapist beauty of skateboarding for marginalized youth. In a way it is, but Liu becomes more interested in why such escapism is needed. And we quickly learn that it’s because he and his friends lived in abusive households as children, with parents or stepparents who harmed them physically or psychologically. Now that they’ve entered adulthood, they’re talking stock of their individual traumas and trying their best not to fall into that terrible cycle of repeating their elders’ mistakes. Their favourite outlet has become the adrenaline rush of pumping through ramps and tracks at their local skate park, continuously toying with the pain of falling on cold concrete while feeling the wind bearing down on their faces. Their boards may occasionally break after a badly-executed move; their wills, however, are less fragile. Instead of bolstering them, Liu wants to see whether it is better for them to be broken down—at least for a short while. Because by forcing a reckoning with the past, there is the chance that its sharpest edges will sting less in the ensuing years. Once you have wrestled with the terrors of the night, you will no longer find them tearing apart your psyche. So, yes, this really is free therapy for all involved, and very necessary.
The personal nature of the doc is disarming at first; then you get to know its subjects and begin appreciating how candid they are, and how patient Liu is with them. They are wildly imperfect, and their behaviour can trend towards the violent at times. Yet Liu knows that they have suffered much, and implicitly asks us not to judge too harshly. It works because there’s so much empathy going around, though there are some select moments when Liu positions himself as a bystander to some serious allegations of abuse, and those moments are the most uncomfortable to witness because that feeling of helplessness begins to extend to us. And even though he is told by the actors involved to say nothing, I wonder if he did the right thing in abiding by their wishes instead of alerting someone who had the power to put a stop to it.
There is no doubt Liu achieves something liberating and empowering here, though. The way he films his friends gliding through the streets on their skateboards is so moving, because you can feel how much this hobby of theirs means to them. They execute it so artfully, and you wish you could watch them skate around for hours. Time and space seem to stop when those wheels start moving, and during those moments you can see the freedom in their eyes. The past and its collective hurt stops mattering in those crucial seconds. There is so much joy, and what joy there is exists solely for them, right then, right there.