Into an already very strong year of documentaries (Three Identical Strangers, RBG, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) comes a powerful, poignant observation on family, masculinity and coming of age, Minding the Gap

The first feature film from Bing Liu and produced by Chicago’s own Kartemquin, Minding the Gap, the very personal story of Liu’s experience growing up as a skateboarding misfit from a broken home in north-central Rockford, is at times so emotionally raw it edges on squirm-inducing. But it’s this very vulnerability, Liu’s willingness to have the hard conversations on camera and his friends’ willingness to let their buddy follow them around through the good, the bad and the ugly, that makes it one of the most impressive debuts in recent memory. 

Fifteen years ago, chances are Liu wasn’t thinking about the fascinating, necessary documentary he’d someday make about the ups and downs of his life and that of his best friends, Zack and Keire. Back then, young Liu always had a camera on hand, probably dreaming of his future filmmaking days but generally just capturing the everyday shenanigans of this troupe of goofball ne’er-do-wells at the skate park and around town. That early footage becomes an early way in to the story Liu ends up telling here, introducing us to the trio (and those around them) as teens without a whole lot to do in their big small town, where parents are working too hard to keep too close an eye on them and the kids seem to find new ways to wreak mostly-harmless havoc at every turn.

Fast-forward to the guys as young adults, and all that comes with this transitional time in life: girlfriends and unplanned pregnancies; family lives at a crossroads, with history and baggage to be reckoned with; backyard binge-drinking and pot-smoking; and skateboarding. Always skateboarding.

The footage Liu captures from his skateboard—a skater himself, he’s effortless on the board even with a camera in one hand—is as meditative as it is impressive. The world zips by as fast as those four small wheels can take us, and it all seems so innocent. Coupled with a score that seems to soar through each extended shot from the board, it all sets the tone of something much less complicated than what we come to learn about these guys, their childhoods and where they go from here.

Sharing too much of those stories—the abuse, the hard times, the uncertainty—feels like it’d be sharing spoilers of a film best experienced with a clean slate. Suffice it to say that neither Liu, Zack or Keire had it easy growing up, each in their own dysfunctional way. Through masterful editing that compacts years of footage into a solid 93 minutes and a narrative arc that keeps you engaged from the film’s first moment to its last, Liu explores it all with an intimacy that no outsider could ever hope to achieve. Whether its quiet moments of Zach caring for his newborn son or gut-wrenching conversations with his own mother, Liu’s connection to this world and these people is palpable. Universal as their stories may be—who hasn’t struggled to make ends meet or fought with those they love the most or questioned what it is they’re doing with their lives?—no other filmmaker would’ve been able to do quite what he does here.

Ultimately, Minding the Gap is about growing up. It’s about the the lasting impact of what we’re exposed to as children and what we mirror as adults; the influence that our parents, friends and mentors have on us (for good or ill); the search for a balance between what we want to do and what we’re supposed to do; and the ways—healthy and otherwise—that we navigate it all.

One can only imagine Liu’s experience currently as the momentum behind the film, which premiered earlier this year at Sundance Film Festival and has been on an upward trajectory ever since, is at a fever pitch. How weird, how exhausting it must be to set out on a press junket that’s essentially built around revisiting the emotional rollercoaster documented in the film, ripping the band-aid off again and again on some of the most trying times in anyone’s life.

Liu has done us all a great favor in keeping these wounds open just a bit longer as Minding the Gap makes its way into the world. In fact, it turns out to be the most compelling part of a documentary chock-full of unexpected heartbreak, emotional gut-punches and an earnestness beyond the filmmaker’s years. In the end, the hijinks of youth and the harsh realities of adulthood intertwine here into one quite revelatory, essential truth: for better or worse, we are all in this together.

Minding the Gap is now streaming on Hulu, making it mandatory viewing to anyone with access to it. It’s also making the theatrical rounds and will open in Chicago on August 31, when Liu will be in attendance for post-film Q&As. However you do it, see this film.

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