Twenty-first century discourse has had much to do with “toxic masculinity” and there are few better examinations of the phenomenon than this gripping, Oscar-nominated documentary from Bing Liu.
Minding the Gap, which follows the lives of three sometime skateboarders from Rockford, Illinois, offers validation for Philip Larkin’s famous argument that “man hands misery on to man” (the gender-specific usage being appropriate here). All three have been beaten by fathers or stepfathers. At least one of them has taken to abusing his own partner.
Liu, who has had a busy career as a camera operator in Hollywood, finds a rough poetry amid the accumulating misery. Archive footage sees the boys skating gleefully – and dangerously – to Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero's insidious score. There's the same lift above their troubling circumstances as we got from the shots of the hero's bird in Kes, but here the hobby comes with the risk of broken elbows. Just like life.
Years pass. Zack Mulligan, handsome like a young Brad Pitt, is the most skate-friendly of the three: a loose-limbed wiseacre who, early in adulthood, has a child with his long-suffering girlfriend.
Keire Johnson, an African-American who misses his late dad, despite having endured domestic violence, emerges as the most philosophical. As the picture progresses, Liu himself also creeps into the action.
He is there to meta-critically comment on the film-making process. “Is this one of those scenes where I pretend you’re not there or the other kind?” Zack asks. Liu also gets to tell us his own tale of suffering and endurance.
The full range of documentary skills are on display. Liu turns analyst in the later stages as he teases his subjects towards troubling insights and, in the film’s fulcrum moment, coaxes an admission from a troublingly unrepentant Zack. The ruthless manner in which he has hacked a decade’s worth of footage into 93 taut minutes alone qualified him for Oscar consideration.
And yet. There is something decidedly iffy about the way Bing has edited the film to suggest that these three were lifelong friends. The director didn’t actually meet Keire until he was in his mid-20s.
“That was reverse-engineered later, to make you feel like they were ones in my group,” he later explained. Other people filmed most of the archival footage that was later curated by Bing.
There is no huge ethical issue here. The film-maker has been frank about his processes in all interviews, but it establishes Minding the Gap as an odd sort of bird. Everything here is true. We are, nonetheless, invited to make insecure assumptions. Perhaps its naïve to even mention it.
Opens March 22nd.