For Zack, a white guy in his twenties, the cycles of abuse that we always hear about are being recapitulated. Zack’s father is described as old-fashioned and prone to physical discipline, though he’s sure other kids had it worse, so Zack laughs it off. When he is given a chance to do better than his dad and raise a baby with girlfriend Nina, a brief spasm of responsibility towards her and his new son flames out, and spats turn into screaming matches, and perhaps more than that. A tailspin of shirked duties and chemical abuse sends him flailing, as all his back-slapping charisma gets him little more than menial jobs and self-loathing.
Keire, a black teen, is essentially Zack a decade earlier. They share the same infectious charm and the same kind of father, though Keire’s dad seems more sanguine and guilty about his abuse after the fact. Keire is still tormented by his time spent with his recently-deceased father, and also by his inability to square the man who hurt him with the one who gave him good advice about navigating the world as a black man. Away from this psychological war is the ecstasy of skating, which Keire indulges in no matter how exhausted he is from work or how irritated he is by his home life. Zack is the head-scratcher of the film, where what the viewer wants for him can vary from scene to scene. Keire is a constant, a bottomless reservoir of optimism and hope that he’ll be alright, avoiding Zack’s path of abandoning an adulthood that he clearly was not ready for.
The man assembling all this footage, Liu, puts himself in front of the camera as well for some onscreen therapy. He’s remembered by skate shop clerks as a sullen kid who stayed in the background of his little gang, and Minding the Gap takes time to explore the tempest within that kid’s head, a dozen years removed. Liu, the naturalized son of a Chinese mother, suffered horrible abuse by his stepfather, and, like Zack and Keire, used skating as an excuse to be out of the house and away from the monster in the next bedroom. He films the entrance into his childhood home like it’s a location for a Conjuring sequel. Perhaps for the first time in his life, Liu gently confronts his mother about his childhood, on camera, in devastatingly powerful scenes where she describes her guilt alongside her fear of her husband, using the moments of kindness from him to wave off the evil ones. She doesn’t have a moment of triumph in getting away from him: he just died one day of natural causes.
The variably brutal, subpar, overly traditional, unimaginative father figures of Minding the Gap’s subjects are all dead during the course of filming, but their influence looms large. Liu‘s purging of his stepdad’s actions with his mom are the most dramatic steps forward, and he takes that push and uses it to prod Zack and Keire to their own realizations. Keire’s father represents an open wound that might heal if he can come to some kind of closure, while Zack is in serious danger of becoming one more deadbeat drinking away the money that he should be using for child support and modeling flawed or failed masculinity for his son. The various threads, including with Nina and her adjusting to life with her emotionally available aunt and uncle, unite in a grand crescendo that infuses the viewer with Minding the Gap’s cathartic power. Breaking cycles is a cliché for a reason, and Liu communicates it with love and empathy. A-