Minding the Gap (Hulu)
Minding the Gap started almost ten years ago, when a teenage Bing Liu would videotape his friends’ skateboarding exploits. As adults, he has revisited his hometown and those friends, and followed the beginnings of their adult lives. One friend is a young father, another is struggling to find a purpose and get out of his hometown, and Liu himself has moved on physically but can’t escape the emotional pains of childhood. Along the way, we meet parents, girlfriends, and adult figures who all played a part in getting these kids to where they are. The subjects balance from uplifting to devastating — one of Liu’s friends confesses that “some people do take their negative experiences and turn them into powerful, positive things. I just don’t think I’m that sort of person” — but at every turn they are brutally honest.
This is not the movie you quite expect it to be from the exquisitely shot sequences of the boys skateboarding through downtown Rockford, Illinois. Those cinematically thrilling bits promise the joys of skateboarding and the excitement of young life. The camera movement following the skateboards is breathtaking, and this is one of the most visually impressive documentaries of the year. As Liu unravels his friend’s lives, though, we get an emotionally raw look at abuse, broken dreams, and the realities of lower-middle class life in 2018. Moments of Liu interviewing his mother, and challenging her on the hardships of his childhood, are unsettling.
Minding the Gap is a personal essay documentary that manages to avoid all of the traps that can aggravate viewers who are sick of inward looking narrators opening up to us their inner demons. That is because Liu broadens his film out to more than just his own upbringing — as he says to one of the other subjects near the end of the film, who he feels has had a parallel life experience, that getting to know him will help him understand himself better. His mom tells him that he cannot change the past, but Minding the Gap doesn’t want to change the past. It merely wants to find a way to make the best of your life with the burdens of the past.
Reversing Roe (Netflix)
Netflix has a very timely release date with Reversing Roe, which looks at the political history of the abortion battle in America. That is because the film’s underlying thesis is that the future of abortion rights relies on the Supreme Court and the choices our presidents make in Justices; the film comes out in the middle of a battle over President Trump’s choice of Judge Kavanaugh and the hearings around his nomination. The film even has a recurring visual motif of showing pictures of the Supreme Court Justices through time and watching their ideologies shift the courts balance. If directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg want to call pro-choice activists to action, now is the time to do it.
Stern and Sudberg are at their best when they are leading us through the history of the battle, from the 1960s, when abortion was illegal, through Roe v. Wade and the evangelical alliance with the Republican party in the 1980s, all the way to the laws passed in the last few years and the emergence of President Trump. As a history lesson, it is concise, clear, and entertaining.
Stern and Sudberg have a clear agenda, though, and in the end it is obvious that the film falls heartily on the side of abortion being legal. That doesn’t stop them from giving time to the anti-abortion side of the argument, and it is to Reversing Roe’s credit that they are allowed to have their say. The film may be preaching to the choir, but it won’t pander to them by ridiculing the other side. It is a smart enough film to know that the best debate is civil (even when it gets heated, like during Wendy Davis’ 2013 Texas filibuster to block an abortion-limiting bill) and a knowledgeable activist is the best kind.