Though I haven’t listened to The Mountain Goats’ The Sunset Tree in a few years, John Darnielle’s autobiographical accounts of his tumultuous relationship with his abusive stepfather remains a personal favorite, as well as one of the most startling and raw listening experiences ever recorded–matched only, in recent years, by records like Sun Kil Moon’s Benji and Mount Eerie’s one-two punch of A Crow Looked at Me and Now Only. Darnielle’s stories of violence and trauma are buoyed by upbeat, dryly produced singer-songwriter instruments. There’s almost a perverse sense of elation that betrays the very real danger in these songs, as if Darnielle is glad to have escaped that life. Though, not enough to not write one of his most accomplished works using those memories.
That’s more or less the same story of Minding the Gap, Bing Liu’s investigation of domestic violence that plagued his and his childhood friends’ upbringing. Liu’s stunning documentary is as heartfelt, as honest, and as empathetic as a film like this could be. I struggle to call Minding the Gap a work of genius, perhaps only because the story Liu tells seems so apparent; Liu’s film is at once a sort of miracle, and somewhat inevitable. With years of access, and the kind of picture that is a culmination of an entire life, Minding the Gap feels like a given, but is no less of a masterpiece of nonfiction filmmaking.
Liu’s hometown of Rockford, Illinois is a ghost town. Hit hard by the Great Recession, with businesses and jobs having left, and nearly half the working class making less than $15/hour, little is left for the young people who grew up there and never got to leave. Rockford is a metaphor so glaringly neat, that would be hacky if someone had written something that obvious. But because Rockford is a real place that has been hit hard by the decisions of the older generations, the town illustrates a frighteningly real phenomenon: The way a previous group of individuals ruined the world for their own kids. After all, the Great Recession was spurred by reckless lending and spending from Baby Boomers and Slackers. To this day, job prospects are bleak, cost of living exponentially outpaces wages, and the powers that be have little interest in using their influence to remedy an increasingly subjugated class. All of this is apparent in Rockford.
Another common trend in Rockford? An alarming rate of domestic violence. The three figures at the center of Minding the Gap–Zack Mulligan, Kiere Johnson, and Liu himself–are united by the physical and emotional abuse they expereinced as kids. Each of them has numerous recollections of beatings and unfounded coldness. At one point, Liu’s half-brother Brent recalls his dad (Liu’s stepfather), apropos of nothing, motivated by no discernible wrongdoing on Brent’s part, looks at Brent, tells him he looks stupid, and cuts Brent’s hair on the spot himself. Zack’s own father has less of a habit of hitting his son, but whose oppressive, withholding brand of square parenting sends Zack in the opposite direction of the straight-laced livelihood his dad wants him to lead.
As a respite, they have each other. But more importantly, they have skateboarding. And the three boys are all undeniably talented skaters. In multiple sequences, Liu captures Zack and Kiere riding throughout Rockford, intermittently popping tricks as they go. And Liu is right there with them, gracefully gliding behind them with the shadow of his steadicam fading in and out of sight. Even as kids, Kiere would take the bus all the way the town’s outdoor skate park, only to shake down others skaters for money for the ride back home. Whatever means necessary to skate. All the while, Liu has been filming his friends, keeping them a part of his world, up to the points in time in which he’s filming them.
But these boys aren’t kids anymore. Kiere’s 18, dipping his toes into the waters of adulthood. Zack and Bing are in their mid-twenties. While Liu clearly made his way out of Rockford–he has a respectable slew of crew credits to his name, and has directed for Steve freakin’ James’s America to Me–Zack and Kiere don’t even have high school diplomas, which isn’t that uncommon in Rockford. Kiere works at a restaurant, slowly working his way up from dishwasher to waiter, exhausted by, but taking his newfound responsibilities in stride. As the film goes on, we see that Kiere does not want to stay in Rockford, for fear that he’ll be trapped there. The more time passes, and the more his friends become entrenched with their lives, Kiere–who, because of his blackness, has a particular distance from his many white friends–slowly drifts away from Zack and company.
Meanwhile, Zack and his significant other Nina have a kid together. Initially, Zack is steadfast in bettering himself. In the first of many efforts to be a grownup that quickly fizzle, Zack is getting back into school by taking some placement tests, only to give up on them when he can’t grasp what they want from him. We also see Zack take to being a father pretty well at first, only to be antsy when he’s cooped with his son Eliot, which manifests as bitterness towards Nina, who is working, but also getting out of the house and being with friends. Their relationship sours early in the film, both in the rows Zack and Nina find themselves in, as well as a recording that’s taken by a friend which catches Nina screaming bloody murder, threatening to kill a seemingly much more contained Zack. When Liu asks Nina about the incident, she posits that the recording didn’t include Zack drunkenly striking her. She’s scarred, and has other unseen bruises. Eventually, she leaves with Eliot, sending Zack into a spiral of alcoholism, joblessness, and eventually homelessness, all before a brief stint in Denver.
Liu’s greatest strength as a storyteller is how deliberately he muddies the waters, playing with tone and expectation. We think we understand him and his friends, and we even root for them. When we see that one of them is a belligerent drunk, the viewer’s allegiances shift. But Liu does this again when, even though Liu has a history of paternal abuse, he doesn’t let us forget that Zack is still his friend. This is a thread paralleled by Liu’s own curiosity as to why his mother stayed with a husband who mistreated her and her kids. Nina, throughout the film, tries to make her’s and Zack’s relationship work, even though she knows he can take things too far. But she can’t shake the goodness she sees in Zack, nor her love for him.
Late in the film, Kiere recalls a fight with his father who apologizes to Kiere by confessing that that’s how his father raised him. In fact, Kiere, perhaps the most stable party in the picture, spends a lot of time wrestling with his feelings about his father, more or less finding peace as the film goes. Even Zack’s dad, who show’s up briefly, is seen playing with Eliot, far more warmly than we might initially believe. In that sense, Minding the Gap is quite bold–specifically, the film’s willingness to show compassion towards abusers, acknowledging the cyclical nature of abuse, and genuinely curious as to whether or not can change. Not everyone is equipped to escape what they know. If nothing else, Liu does sorry for his friend, whose abusive behavior Liu tiptoes around for much the film, even though he’s still putting actions in his movie.
Minding the Gap manages to cover quite a bit of ground with such a nimble touch–or even the agile tendencies of a seasoned skateboarder. The way Liu illustrates the plights of his generation, the pathology of familial abuse, why we stay with people who hurt us, how our parents shape us, and attempting to break this hereditary practice of abuse. And the film offers no easy answers, but neither are we owed such resolution. The film isn’t about abuse in broad strokes. Minding the Gap is a deeply personal and introspective film on how individuals cope with trauma. Some find forgiveness, some are filled with regret, some spar with their demons for the rest of their lives.
Liu closes with another trip through Rockford by skateboard, scored by “This Year–” possibly the best song John Darnielle has written, and among the 20 best songs of the 21st century. Darnielle’s stomping ode to perseverance, distractions, and ultimately coming back to one’s boogeyman, all capped with a nasally proclamation “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me,” the film couldn’t have asked for a smarter, more moving sendoff that encapsulates all of the ideas so succinctly. And even though the film ends somewhat ambiguously, Darnielle’s resolute coda persists. We, for the most part, want these people to be in better places, but we also see how much of an uphill battle they have, and how easily one can find themselves taking steps backward. The best anyone can do is start one year and end at the other. If that person is Kiere or Zack, they struggle for a while, and slowly find their feet and do their best to keep them. If that person is Bing Liu, they can take every major thread of their life, and deliver one of the finest documentaries ever made.