While many filmmakers plant the seeds for their careers in childhood—herding friends and family in front of the camera, recreating scenes from favorite movies, and otherwise cultivating a love for film and cinema—director Bing Liu takes his childhood filmmaking to an entirely new level. Few people can claim to use footage they shot in childhood for their first feature, and even fewer receive widespread acclaim for it. Yet Liu manages to achieve both in his film, Minding the Gap, a raw, poetic look at childhood friendships, familial abuse, and, of course, skateboarding.
As Liu and his friends tear across the screen at the beginning of the film, the story initially feels like a celebration of childhood and the teenage years, but it soon takes a darker turn as Liu reveals the abuse that all three of the friends experienced in their home lives. As they transition into adulthood and struggle to escape their past, Liu crafts a story that loops and cycles on itself in the manner of a well-structured narrative—albeit an undeniably real and unfabricated narrative.
Just as Liu frankly and calmly confronts his friends and family about their actions and experiences, the camera unabashedly showcases their virtues and faults without flourish. Nowhere does a scene feel unnecessary, and each handheld camera angle is as raw as its subjects. The pacing of the film is also one of its greatest strengths as emotion builds and builds throughout the film until it erupts into a masterfully edited climax that leaves all three characters, and not to mention the viewer, with new perspectives.
Not only did it win Sundance’s 2018 US Documentary Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Filmmaking, Minding the Gap won both Audience Choice Award and Best Documentary Feature at the Mountainfilm Festival 2018. The fact that it enraptured both critics and audiences alike adds to its impressive list of feats, which begs the question: how can such a complex, heavy film somehow keep its footing amongst its viewers?
The answer lies with its maker. Liu’s constant presence and gentle probing into the lives of his friends—and ultimately his own—provides a sense that no matter how hard it gets, at least one character will continue searching for peace. This, perhaps, is the most fundamental part of the film: as long as there are people like Liu refusing to give in and give up, but instead willingly making themselves vulnerable and initiating conversation, hope remains for a better world.