One of the most important documentaries ever made is Hoop Dreams from Steve James. The film follows two young boys in Chicago, looking for a way to make it to the NBA. The documentary was supposed to be 30 minutes long when filming began. 5 years later, it was 171 minutes. It is a colossal achievement in filmmaking and remains one of the great documentaries ever made. Since then, the formula has been borrowed on several occasions. Follow a kid or group of kids growing up, and see what happens. However, there is a difference in the documentary genre, especially when the project is organic. That’s what happened with Minding the Gap, inarguably the best documentary Hulu has ever produced. You may think you’re looking into the world of skateboarding, but this film is a rich text about growing up, domestic violence, and the world of being poor in America.
Minding the Gap follows three young men as they grow up as skateboarders in Illinois. The filmmaker, Bing Liu, turns the camera on himself and his friends Zack Mulligan and Keire Johnson. Each of the boys takes a different path in their story and faces difficult problems. Looming over the film is the issue of domestic abuse, so prevalent in Rockford, Illinois that the US government used the city as a case study on violent crime. Each of the boys has their background with violence, and each struggles with its presence in their life today.
As they drift apart and come together, we watch as dreams are created and broken. Some of the moments are beautiful and fulfilling. Others will rip your heart out of your chest. The credit for this film goes the brilliant work that Liu puts into this film. He is there for moments that will make you fall in love with these characters. He’s honest in his portrayal of his friends, even as they make good and bad choices. They struggle, sometimes with drugs and alcohol, other times with jobs. They are poor in America, yet Liu found financial security. The fear of being alone is prevalent throughout the film. The relationships at the center of the film are altered. While we believe these boys will love each other in their own way, the world is not always kind to friendship.
There is no shortage of metaphors and concepts that Minding the Gap brings to the table. It captures a moment in America from dozens of points of view. There is an authenticity this film carries, especially for Keire as we watch him understand what it means to be black in America. His relationship with a father we never see becomes a heartbeat of the film, and while he seems like a goofy kid at times, you are reminded of his ambition and drive to be something great.
At the same time, Zach must struggle with fatherhood. He doesn’t understand how to truely understand his own father’s actions. Simultaneously, Liu’s history of domestic abuse comes to the surface. When Zach becomes an abuser, Liu confronts his own history. We are front seat observers to a struggle you can never truly understand. Yet we see shades of understanding and history repeating itself in brutal and physical ways.
Skating is a way of life at the beginning of the film for Kiere and Zach. It is an emotional outlet that gives them a way out of their lives. This will make you love these characters early in the film. Yet Minding the Gap is about so much more. The film will yank you out of your seat and make you pay attention. Liu has created something of a towering film about America over the past decade. Yet at the same time, it lets you revel in being a teenager and young adult. It is a powerful film and one that is among the strongest documentaries of 2018.
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