Minding the Gap Is an Extraordinary Feat of Filmmaking

The Hulu documentary by Bing Liu examines masculinity and trauma through the lens of three Illinois skateboarders.

Zack Mulligan and Keire Johnson in 'Minding the Gap'
Zack Mulligan (left) and Keire Johnson (right) in Minding the Gap (Hulu)

The moment Bing Liu’s gifts as a filmmaker first become clear is about a minute and a half into Minding the Gap. After documenting his two friends sneaking into a parking garage, Liu captures them skating through the city of Rockford, Illinois, while he follows behind. The scene that comes next is about 100 seconds of pure grace. Keire turns a corner, bending his knees and skimming the ground with one hand like he’s surfing a wave. Zack jumps effortlessly onto a sidewalk as he’s crossing a bridge, cruising over the water. Liu encapsulates the freedom, the companionship, and the beauty of skating in a way that sweeps the audience up in the motion and the space.

Liu, a 29-year-old cameraman and cinematographer, grew up alongside Keire and Zack, and documented them throughout his teenage years, turning their antics at the skate park into mini films and experimental shorts. “I always thought it was cool how you could put all these moments into one long video and make it seem like the best time ever,” Zack tells him early in the film. But the story Liu captures is more complex, charting his friends’ uneasy path into adulthood, as well as a darker presence in all of their lives. If Minding the Gap were just a skate film, it would be an accomplishment simply for how it mimics the experience of skating. It’s much, much more.

At the beginning of the film, newly released on Hulu, Zack’s girlfriend, Nina, is pregnant, and the pair are preparing for the birth of their son. “We have to fully grow up and it’s gonna fucking suck,” Zack says. Keire, who’s a few years younger, just turned 18 and is trying to find a job while still having time to skate. “I could be having a kind of mental breakdown, but as long as I’m able to go skate it’s completely fine,” he says. In one scene, after Liu films Keire’s jumps and his crashes and his infectious sense of joy, the camera turns to his skateboard, which bears the words This device cures heartache.

The most intriguing presence in the film is Liu himself, who’s on camera only in archival footage he took of himself years ago, and in one climactic scene documenting a conversation with his mother. In one scene, he interviews Eric, the owner of a skate shop, who recalls Liu always hanging around as a teenager. “I know you had some huge weight on you,” Eric says. “I can’t remember when you opened up to me about your mom and stuff. Skateboarding meant more to you than being cool and having friends. It was your thing to get away. It was kind of a life or death thing.”

As the film moves forward and Liu’s subjects get older, his real subject emerges. Minding the Gap is about how each of its subjects navigates violence in their lives, and how they struggle to break a cycle. Zack recalls being disciplined as a kid. Keire strains to reconcile his grief for his late father with memories of physical beatings that he compares to child abuse. The darkest story is Liu’s, which emerges in fragments of interviews with his half-brother, and a final confrontation with his mother about the man she married. Liu also captures arguments between Zack and Nina that turn physical, interrogating his friend’s behavior gently, but rigorously. He documents Keire’s mother’s new boyfriend displaying disturbingly controlling behavior. And he contrasts rolling scenes of Rockford’s gorgeous architecture and scenery with news broadcasts recounting its grimly high statistics for domestic violence and violent crime.

Liu’s intimacy with his subjects becomes contagious, to the point where their small victories are thrilling and their failures feel devastating. All three seem to be constantly wrestling with a legacy they don’t want to inherit. “I don’t know what to say,” Liu’s mother tells him. “I wish I [could] go over, do again, do differently.” All three men are trying not to repeat their parents’ mistakes, to varying degrees of success. Liu makes clear, too, that Keire’s experiences are entirely different as a black teenager growing up in America, and he deftly weaves interludes together that put Keire and Zack’s stories in sharp contrast.

It’s a film that could easily be bleak, except for the beauty that Liu finds in his friends’ lives, in skating, and in Rockford itself, which looms out into the distance like a giant park to be explored. But he also documents a generation that’s more adept at introspection, more attuned to analyzing moments of trauma and how they shape us. The emotional intelligence Liu, Keire, and Zack demonstrate in their moments of self-analysis is what leaves Minding the Gap ending with something a lot like hope.