Friday, August 9, 2019

“Minding the Gap”: Middle America Rolls On

“Penny Marshall put Rockford, Illinois on the map with A League of Their Own, her 1992 movie about the Rockford Peaches women’s baseball team.” That’s the kick-off of a recent article in the Hollywood Reporter, announcing the town’s plans to honor the late director by staging a Penny Marshall Celebration in mid-September. Marshall’s daughter and grandchildren are scheduled to participate, and a highlight will be the unveiling of plans for Rockford’s International Women’s Baseball Museum.

A recent Hulu film—one that’s been nominated for both an Oscar and a primetime Emmy—shows another side of Rockford, Illinois. Minding the Gap, a documentary feature by Millennial filmmaker Bing Liu, also deals with athletics, but women who play baseball is hardly its focus. Instead, Minding the Gap plunges us into the world of skateboarding, introducing us to several young men (including the filmmaker himself) who are passionate about jumping onto a seven-inch slab of maplewood outfitted with wheels in order to sail down sidewalks, soar off ramps, and flip ecstatically skyward. Skateboarding, a sport with no formal rules, is clearly the definition of “cool.’ It seems well suited to young bodies and young minds, and when the film began I assumed it would be a paean to skateboarding as an emotional release from the mundane life of boys growing up in a drab middle-America town.

Minding the Gap is that, but also much more. What makes the film unique is the intimacy of its look at its central characters: Keire Johnson, Zack Mulligan, and Liu himself.  They are all skateboard buddies from way back: Liu started filming their boarding antics when he was only fourteen years old, though it took a decade for him to decide that their stories would be the basis of his first documentary film. (He’s now reached the ripe old age of 30.) Through visual footage and on-camera interviews he brings us into their lives. Johnson is a sweet-natured,African American haunted by the death of his father soon after they had angrily parted ways. Liu, born in China, shares his own anxieties about his mother’s second marriage to a tough-minded Anglo. Mulligan, perhaps the most charismatic of the three, is a wild man on his board, but also a husband and a father who can’t seem to reconcile his competing urges to protect his toddler son Elliot and to shuck off all sense of responsibility. In the course of the film, we also meet Bing Liu’s immigrant mother, Zack Mulligan’s increasingly frustrated baby mama, and other Rockford residents who comment tellingly about the world the three young men inhabit with such obvious discomfort.

What becomes startling in the course of the film is the realization that none of these three skateboarders is a stranger to domestic violence. Keire Johnson’s childhood is remembered as a time when stringent discipline within the house was considered the best way to keep young black boys out of trouble outside it. Bing Liu , his younger brother, and their sad-eyed mother all admit they were victims of the stepfather’s raging brutality. As for Zack Mulligan, he copes with his inability to grow up by hard-core drinking and by lashing out at whomever is present. Says he to the camera at one particularly telling moment, “You can’t beat up women . . . but some bitches need to be slapped sometime.” 

Minding the Gap ends with a shred of hope that these broken lives can be mended. In a poignant scene at his father’s grave, Keire Johnson muses that his dead dad’s qualities—tough discipline and love—are akin to those that skateboarding demands.

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