‘Minding the Gap’ between friendship and fulfillment

Vino Vérité Presents: Minding the Gap with Bing Liu

FilmScene — Sunday, May 6 at 7 p.m. (free youth screening at 11 a.m.)

“Minding the Gap” filmmaker Bing Liu is meticulous about self-insertion. — video still

Minding the Gap is filmmaker Bing Liu’s first feature, and it shows.

First and foremost, this film is almost achingly hopeful. It’s filled with an optimism for and faith in all of its subjects that verges on naive. And it’s got an open-heartedness that doesn’t feel like it would be possible for a documentarian any later than this in their career. If Liu can translate the intimacy and love baked deeply into this film to projects that center on subjects he hasn’t known for a decade, he will emerge as a phenomenal voice in documentary filmmaking.

But even if he doesn’t, he will still have achieved something extraordinary with Minding the Gap.

Liu starts the film with establishing shots of Rockford, Illinois — a city with plenty of problems (revealed in clever newsreport voiceovers during the film) but which is very much an every-city. It could be Cedar Rapids. It could be Dubuque. It drew me in with familiarity, and then dropped me into the middle of a friend group that could have been my own.

It’s not clear whether Liu and his friends Keire and Zack form the sort of emotional core of their circle of influence, or if the auxiliary, unnamed characters simply weren’t interested in being profiled for the film (or maybe their lives were just too normal to be interesting). But the three central stories are compelling enough that I was only casually curious about the others.

Minding the Gap is touted as a coming-of-age film, an exploration of manhood in 21st century America. It is definitely those things. But it’s also something more. Or, rather, it takes something more and adds it to what we as viewers should expect from that genre of film.

Where this is most evident is in the way Minding the Gap, ostensibly the story of three childhood friends learning to become men, approaches the women in the narrative. Keire and Liu’s mothers, Roberta and Mengyue, and Nina, who begins the film as Zack’s girlfriend, are all treated with the same compassion and curiosity as the central film subjects (Nina’s story eventually gaining parity with Zack’s). All of the common tropes and traps in manhood tales of the women being external agents either of suffering or redemption are deftly avoided here.

There is the sense in Minding the Gap that this is an existential choice — that Liu’s definition of achieving manhood explicitly involves acknowledging the full humanity of women. That shouldn’t feel novel or transgressive, but it does, even as Liu works to also make it feel fully normalized within his world.

There are spaces in Minding the Gap that go frustratingly unfilled. Liu, with an almost forced casualness, includes an examination of Keire’s blackness — but makes no attempt to look at how his own Chinese identity played or plays a role in his life. And, in a film as much about fatherhood as it is about manhood, it’s frustrating that the one father who is around — Zack’s dad, Rory — makes only a brief appearance and never speaks on or to the camera (this may not be a fault in Liu’s storytelling; it’s possible Rory wasn’t interested in or wouldn’t agree to being filmed). There are also moments in the film where perspective feels forced — where, as a viewer, I want Liu to intercede, and it feels like he’s holding back as a friend for the sake of the scene.

Overall, though, Liu presents a beautifully woven narrative with some beautiful cinematic moments. He is exceedingly precise and intentional in his self-insertion choices — when he’s filming elements of his own story, for example, Liu-as-filmmaker is foregrounded, whether it’s through allowing his shadow, holding the camera, to be visible or through the prevalence of the full recording setup when he’s interviewing his mother. He has little interest in hiding behind the myth of the documentarian as objective outsider.

Despite a scene or two of what might be maudlin excess, Minding the Gap ties some wonderful elements together to great effect. The music in the film is delightful, and the integration of footage filmed when Liu was a teenager is winningly done. The precisely placed shots of on-theme billboards across the city are a bit groan-worthy in their appropriateness at times, but it’s a clever device that was worth exploring. The scenes of the skateboarding that brings the friends together and composes the film’s frame narrative are, frankly, exquisite.

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I urge everyone who’s ever been or parented a disaffected teenager (or, in my case, both!) to see Minding the Gap. It achieved the fascinating effect of mining my memories to create a sense of nostalgia for people I never knew.

Minding the Gap is being screened this Sunday, May 6, as part of the Vino Vérité series at FilmScene (presented by Little Village, FilmScene and Bread Garden Market). Tickets to the 7 p.m. show are $20-25. There will also be a free screening for youth ages 13-21 at 11 a.m. at FilmScene. Liu will be present and participating in discussion at both events.

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