Of course the best movie of the year is a skateboarding documentary. If that sounds weird to you, you may not know skateboarding culture, a truly unique and consistently revolutionary subculture that has fueled so much else that happens in the larger pop culture for decades.
For one thing, filmmakers come out of skateboarding. That’s because skateboarders are obsessed with capturing their tricks and moves for everyone to see; every gaggle of skaters ahs the one dude who is filming EVERYTHING. Those guys often grow up to get into the movie industry, as did Rockford Illinois’ Bing Liu, director of Minding the Gap.
Skateboarding is also a strangely vulnerable subculture; tied in with the punk scene, it’s a world of people who are hurt and who are hurting, and they don’t hide their emotional scars. They show them off, just as proudly as they show off the scars they get from bad falls or epic wipeouts. There’s a deep level of machismo involved in skating – it’s super physical, you are all but guaranteed to get hurt – but also a level of emotional openness that defies modern conventions of masculinity. A skatepark is both the scene of intense physical bravado and the safe space for intense emotional explosions.
It’s when those two unexpected elements of skate culture come together that we get a masterpiece like Minding the Gap, a movie that’s about skating but that’s actually about life in America in the 2010s, and more specifically about life as a man in the 2010s. It’s maybe the most sweeping documentary of the decade, and yet it focuses on just three guys in one town. It’s a marvel.
Liu started filming his skate buddies in middle school, and he kept the tapes. As is always the case with skater videos, what he captured was a mixture of tricks, fucking around and raw, emotional honesty that erupted unexpected but was never diminished or ignored. Taking those tapes, Liu returned to his home town of Rockford, Illinois, and began following around two of his (incredibly photogenic) friends, Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan.
Over the course of the film, which was shot over a few years, we watch Keire and Zack change and grow. They begin as sub-Jackass party boys and begin to evolve in ways that are unexpected, touching and sometimes troubling. Zack and his girlfriend have a child, and that relationship becomes tense and difficult; eventually Zack is accused of domestic violence. Keire, meanwhile, comes to terms with the childhood abuse he suffered at the hands of his now-dead father, and he also deals with the unpleasant reality of being a black kid in the majority white world of skating.