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On the surface, it may be easy to dismiss Minding the Gap, the Oscar-nominated documentary feature currently streaming on Hulu, as the “skateboard documentary.” Now, like music or painting, skateboarding is an art form worthy of extensive cinematic exploration. But the truth is Minding the Gap is much more about life than it is about kickflips and boardslides.
The visionary director and one of the film’s subjects, Bing Liu, began videotaping his friends at an early age… and he captured them doing some great skating. The filming is as good as professionally made retail skate videos. If you’ve never ollied down a flight of concrete steps before, Bing makes you feel like you’re along for the ride. But the scenes outside the skate park are the most profound. The quiet, raw and brutally honest moments uncover universal truths about young men. And they are not easy to watch.
With Zack Mulligan, Keire Johnson and Bing, we glean insight on how sons try to transcend the abuse of their fathers, and how hard it is to break the cycle of violence. We see the abuse’s lasting effect on these young men and those loved ones (girlfriends, moms) who also have to suffer the consequences.
Much of skateboarding relies on understanding — and testing — the laws of physics. Skateboarding can teach you to challenge yourself and build confidence in your abilities without authorities giving you direction or judging how you do it. Real life is different; we are relentlessly told and taught to move up the ladder for economic and social status. Upward mobility is the essential ingredient of the American dream.
Not all kids are wired for that. Not all adults are either. I’ve met many people who credit skateboarding with saving their lives and giving them better perspective. Society has told Zack, Keire and Bing they can’t be kids anymore, and the tension (or the gap) between adulthood and skateboarding is at times vast and confusing. These kids gravitated to skating in the streets because their home lives were brutal. They were carrying tons of emotional baggage around. They were looking to make sense of something that is impossibly difficult to process. They just wanted to glide and grind. Because it’s easier to breathe, soaring through (and above) Rockford, Illinois on four urethane wheels, even for a few seconds, than it is living inside it, day in and day out. At one point, Bing’s camera reveals a cracked deck and the words “This device cures heartache” defiantly painted across the board. (Yes, I will attest that skateboarding can break your bones, but it can also help you overcome heartache.)
Our sport (art? lifestyle?) is often ostracized as a punk, rebellious activity reserved for outcasts. At times in can be just that. But at its heart, skateboarding is a mix of skill, precision, perseverance and community. Yes, these flawed young men struggle with everything else in their lives. But they do know if they move an inch too far in a certain direction, if they lean more left than right, they could roll an ankle or break a wrist. Zack, Keire and Bing have dignity and power with their boards, but without them they’re lost. And the film doesn’t shy away from exploring that dichotomy, without admiration or judgment.
As boys, skateboarding keeps them safe from the dangers of home, from the wrath of their fathers already lost to a world that left them behind. As men, they face hardship, burgeoning alcoholism and a local economy that’s left most of its prospects — and citizens — behind. They work as roofers or dishwashers to make ends meet. But when they step on their boards, they are alive. And it’s inspiring to watch.
Tony Hawk is a professional skateboarder and is considered to be one of the most successful and influential pioneers of the sport. His Tony Hawk Foundation has given away more than $5.2 million to 556 skate park projects throughout the United States. He is a husband and the father of four.
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