Minding the Gap, nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar, is the first feature film of Bing Liu, who as of this writing does not have a Wikipedia page. Based on this film, that won't last. Liu, who I believe is in his mid-20s, has a long list of credits. The IMDB gives him 38 credits for "Camera and Electrical Department", many of them for TV. If nothing else, this helps explain the extraordinary look of Minding the Gap; on what seems to have been a budget of about $15, Liu dazzles with his shots of skateboarding. What is surprising is that Liu also has a great sense of how to build a movie so that it doesn't just offer up pretty pictures, but also tells a story that is progressively deeper during the film.
Minding the Gap is the story of three young boys/men (including Liu) from Rockford, Illinois, who share a love of skateboarding. At the start, it doesn't seem to be headed anywhere. But as we get to know the boys, as we learn their personal stories, we understand that skateboarding means more to them than just zipping around. It provides an alternative family for kids whose home lives are troubled. The film lets us gradually see this, but the boys themselves seem to understand it without saying anything. They are reflective of their own lives without being solipsistic about it.
At first, I was worried that Liu was exploiting his friends. But they don't seem disarmed by the process of being interviewed on camera. And Liu plays fair ... he turns the camera on himself, in a tense scene with his mother, who is confronted with the reality of her son's abuse at the hands of his stepfather. If at times, I wondered if Liu was taking advantage of the boys, well, he throws himself right into the mix.
The result is a character study, which didn't seem likely. When the film began, I thought the camera work was nice, and settled in for a pretty but empty ode to skateboarding. By the end, I'd seen something far beyond that supposed emptiness.
And Liu amazes in the way he creates a movie that feels seamless. Liu credits co-editor Joshua Altman for much of this, and it is interesting to read interviews with Liu and Altman where they describe the tag-team method they used for editing. But the credit would seem to go to both ... Liu is a more-than-active participant in the process.
Minding the Gap is an audacious first film. This isn't the last we'll hear of Bing Liu.