One of the year’s great, small treasures, Bing Liu’s extraordinary documentary “Minding the Gap” is like a deluxe skateboarding video, yet so much more.
Opening Friday at the Roxie and also streaming on Hulu, the movie was filmed over an astonishing 12 years in Rockford, Ill. (One critic has already called it the “Boyhood” of skate videos.)
Bing, who frequently appears on camera, is one of a trio of friends who found solace from their troubled home lives in their friendships and in skating.
The friends are seen growing older onscreen, aging from gawky adolescents to older teens and adults in their early 20s.
Zack’s story takes a turn when his girlfriend Nina becomes pregnant and they attempt to raise the child, quickly beginning to argue over their workloads and who deserves a break. (Nina appealingly has her own voice; she’s not just a foil for Zack.)
Bing boldly interviews his mother about her former relationship with the man who helped raise him and his brother, and who abused them when they were kids.
Meanwhile, Keire’s struggle takes a more interior turn as he deals with the death of his father and ponders his own identity as an African-American in Rockford.
The film’s brilliant use of locations — a burned-out, crumbling rust-belt town filled with ironically optimistic billboards — amazingly underlines its mix of hope and hopelessness.
But “Minding the Gap” isn’t just about suffering. These kids persevere. The fluid, exhilarating staking sequences make them seem like superheroes, zooming in and around concrete structures, as if not even touching the ground.
The action makes for a good argument to seeing the film on the Roxie’s big screen. The skating is not just about fun, but about finding a reason to go on.
One skateboard has “This device cures heartbreak” scrawled on it; watching these subjects, the phrase feels achingly true.
Far from a standard talking-head doc, “Minding the Gap” gets to the core, revealing pain, love, hope, despair and other complex matters in a bracingly upfront way.
Over the years, Bing’s camera has become an ingrained part of their lives. The skateboarders appear to trust one another so implicitly that nothing is held back. There are no protective guards, and everyone is allowed to be flawed.
The construction of what must have been mountains of raw footage, cannily aided by editor Josh Altman, raises the project to something beyond a mere home movie.
By separating individual stories and following them through years, the film traces maturing relationships. Friends go from juvenile teasing and bragging to trusting each other with their feelings.
It’s a portrait of “toxic masculinity” and of men learning to become themselves in an atmosphere of judgment and stern expectations, as well as violence and ignorance.
Bing’s clever title — the movie is named after the famous signs on the platforms of the London tube — also refers to the “gaps” between generations and between men and women.
The film was executive produced by Steve James, whose legendary “Hoop Dreams” has much of the same vibe. But without a competitive aspect, “Minding the Gap” is more intimate, even more existential.
It’s a great film, one that understands where we come from and how we cope, and still makes room to ask: Where do we go from here?
Minding the Gap
Three and a half stars
Starring: Keire Johnson, Zack Mulligan, Bing Liu
Directed by: Bing Liu
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes