Documentary Review: The Oscar nominated “Minding the Gap,” on PBS Monday

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Bing Liu was just another sk8rboi, hanging with his dead-end pals in the struggling Rust Belt city of Rockford, Illinois, when he started video-taping their lives.

Skating stunts, pranks, parties, good times, he was the skater whose friends would ask, “Why are you filming EVERYTHING?”

“I always thought it was really cool that you could put all these great moments together in one long video and make it seem like The Best Time Ever,” Liu says.

Those early, improvised, DIY shot-and-edited scenes and montages would someday form the “historical” material in a feature length documentary. And now that film, “Minding the Gap,” is a Best Documentary Feature contender at this year’s Academy Awards.

A maturing Liu took that old footage, extensively interviewed his two best friends Kiere and Zack and created a moving portrait of boys growing up rough in Rockford — abused, with limited prospects and hellbent on not growing up, not giving up skating, making their friends their “family.”

“Minding the Gap,” a Hulu production, comes to PBS Monday, Feb. 18, as part of the documentary series “P.O.V.”

We meet Kiere at 18, a thoughtful black teen who declares “I do not fit in with my family.” His widowed mother Roberta agrees that he’s “very different” from his aimless siblings, especially the brother who steals from him. Roberta hopes he’ll “get real serious about what he’s doing.” Since he won’t be following his father into carpentry, what will that be?

And will his “strict” upbringing ever let him have a normal relationship? “I got disciplined…They call it ‘child abuse’ now.”

We meet the mustachioed Zack as he’s indulging. Hard not to do. Zack indulges a lot.

“Are you gonna put me smokin’ weed in the…thing?”

“Maybe.”

“I have no stipulations. I’ve given you free rein!”

So here Zack is, shotgunning Pabst Blue Ribbon.There he is, goggle-eyed and just-concerned-enough that he’s about to become a Dad.

“We have to grow up. And it’s gonna suck…I just wanted to skate.”

Bing’s polish as a cameraman and aspiring filmmaker grows, seemingly right before our eyes, as his fluid tracking shots capture guys who have had the time and support (SOMEbody fed them) to get very good at skateboarding in this withering (mass exodus of jobs and people) city.

But when we meet Bing’s half-brother Kent, and then his mother Mengyue, we see and hear of the abused childhood he lived through, experiences that making this film will help him process — he hopes.

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“Minding the Gap” follows the three friends as they enter young adulthood, with Zack’s adjustment to fatherhood and the diminished expectations that a life as a roofer might mean to him.

It’s the most natural thing in the world that he and girlfriend Nina fight over parenting responsibilities in the most childish ways imaginable. Hearing Zack got smacked a bit as a kid just adds tension to these screaming matches — one of which Zack tapes on his phone (too rough to show) — which we know will end in violence.

Kiere lands his first real job, as a dishwasher at a restaurant. He’s the one who talks about the “trap” of Rockford, the one most eager to get out. But he’s got anger management issues and maturity issues. He gets his first car, and scratches it up doing skateboard stunts off the bumper.

Bing, seen working with a sound and camera assistant as an adult, with much more elaborate lighting and camera set-ups, gently confronts his friends, their families and his, about what they went through and what that means to them all today.

It’s an expertly cut film, with Bing letting Kiere mention he doesn’t care for his mother’s latest beau, cutting to his interview with Roberta as the soundtrack captures that bossy jerk of a boyfriend calling “Five minutes is up” from the next room. That’s all he expects Roberta to give her son’s friend, the aspiring filmmaker.

Billboards are cleverly used to punctuate scenes and messaging in “Minding the Gap,” as we see one for clinics that cater to skateboarding injuries after Kiere takes a fall, another that mentions “Dad’s the one who picks you up when you fall” after a skater loses his dad.

An “Adopt USA” billboard follows a Zack-and-Nina-can’t-get-it-together-for-their little-boy-Elliott moment.

“Minding the Gap” is a film of skill, pathos and humor, not the deepest movie up for an Best Documentary Oscar this year, but certainly the most approachable.

Whatever the future holds for these friends who were drifting away before this movie (guessing here) re-connected the three of them, Liu shows himself a skilled photographer, editor and documentary storyteller.

Don’t be surprised if his first Oscar nomination isn’t his last.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity (bleeped for PBS), alcohol, marijuana

Cast: Kiere Johnson, Bing Liu, Zack Mulligan

Credits: Directed by Bing Liu. A Hulu/PBS-POV release.

Running time: 1:25

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