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'Minding the Gap' review: A filmmaker finds truth on the streets of Rockford

Growing up in Rockford, cinematographer and director Bing Liu spent a lot of his teenage years skateboarding and filming his friends doing the same. “Minding the Gap” is the result, but it’s crucial to know straight off: This is not a kinetic, Mountain Dew-y tribute to risk-prone adrenaline junkies. Liu didn’t settle for a microcosmic skateboarding culture movie, or a first-person essay about the abuse inflicted by his stepfather, or a collective portrait of his friends’ often painful circumstances and relationships with their own fathers.

Miraculously, Liu’s documentary contains elements of all these subjects. The themes crisscross with the ease and fluidity of the film’s enthralling opening credit sequence, depicting three young men freewheeling and trick-boarding around conspicuously empty Rockford streets. We come to know these three very well in a tightly packed 90 minutes. Liu’s on-camera and behind-camera demeanor, soft-spoken and unhurried, sets the tone. “Minding the Gap” is an exceptionally reflective examination of the 29-year-old filmmaker’s life, and surroundings, and it works because the movie concerns so much more.

It’s currently streaming on Hulu. It opens a two-week Gene Siskel Film Center engagement Friday, with Liu introducing select screenings this weekend. Either way, see it. It’s one of the strongest achievements of the movie year.

Liu shot footage for several years, capturing moment upon moment, often with his own quiet interjections heard from behind the camera. The three main nonfiction characters comprise a Rust Belt edition of The Three Musketeers, each young man seeking solace and escape in skateboarding.

When he was younger, gangly, charismatic Keire Johnson used to take the bus to the skate park to meet his friends, and then borrow money to get home. In the present-day footage we see Keire struggling to resolve deeply troubling and complicated feelings toward his late father, and the simple, hard fact of growing up African-American in a town struggling to find itself and support its citizens. The background of “Minding the Gap” is a tough city of roughly 150,000. One TV news report spliced into Liu’s film reports that nearly half of Rockford’s workforce earns less than $15 an hour.

Along with Johnson, the other key subject is Zack Mulligan, the self-appointed “clown” and live wire of the group, wrestling with a sudden onslaught of fatherhood. The on-again, off-again relationship between Zack and his girlfriend, Nina, is fraught with often frightening verbal threats and physical batterings. Zack’s own childhood of physical abuse, administered by his father, has given way to a grim new history of domestic violence. “Minding the Gap” is a movie made among friends, but it’s unsparingly clear-eyed and forthright about everyone’s flaws as well as their grace notes.

Around the midpoint Liu turns to his own part of the story. He interviews his mother, born in China as was the director, drawing out her memories of Liu’s abusive stepfather. The director’s half-brother, Kent, appears briefly on camera as well, recalling the “unnerving screams of anguish” coming from his sibling’s room at night.

Much of “Minding the Gap” is painful to witness, but as past and present intersect and recombine and Liu’s wealth of footage coalesces, the finished film becomes a cautiously hopeful and even cathartic experience. It’s fully responsive as cinema. Liu, who served as editor along with Josh Altman, deploys the lyric skateboarding interludes just often enough to keep everything flowing. Akin to Michael Apted’s “7 Up” series, or Richard Linklater’s narrative feature “Boyhood,” at one point we see Zack hurtle through a few formative years in a lovely video montage. Life is beautiful, and cruel, and this film is a dialectic between the harshness and the beauty.

Liu served as one of the segment directors on the new Steve James 10-part documentary series “America to Me.” That program is remarkable in a wholly different way (currently streaming on Starz) but together these two projects showcase Liu as a natural-born filmmaker and an invaluable inquiring mind. Some documentarians are like camera-equipped town criers. In the case of “Minding the Gap,” the town is larger than just Rockford. It could be any number of places, everywhere.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

“Minding the Gap” — 4 stars

No MPAA rating (some language, drug use)

Running time: 1:33

Opens: Friday (through Sept. 13) at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.; siskelfilmcenter.org. Also streaming on Hulu.

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