I certainly did not start this blog to review movies, but yesterday I watched a film that deserves mention in the context of the relatively serious discussions I am attempting to have here.
The movie I saw was named “Minding the Gap,” a well-crafted documentary by young filmmaker Bing Liu chronicling the coming of age stores of two of his childhood friends – Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan – from Rockford, Illinois. Johnson, Mulligan, and Liu himself grew up skateboarding throughout Rockford (the former two are incredibly gifted skateboarders, as the film routinely depicts), and are united by both their love of the sport and their ability to utilize it as an escape from what can be described as mostly difficult upbringings. Throughout the film, the childhood abuse of all three – and its long-term impact – is a routine topic of exploration. Set against the backdrop of hardscrabble Rockford (which apparently suffers from some of the highest rates of family violence in the country), the film also depicts the impact of broken families, race, class, and economic opportunities (or the lack thereof), among other topics, on the difficult journey to manhood.
I was inspired to attend this movie (and miss the second half of the Saints/Rams NFC title game in the process) because it had received excellent reviews from a number of national, mostly left-leaning journalistic outlets, such as The New York Times, New Yorker, and The Atlantic. The reviews from each of those outlets detail the film in similar terms to those I’ve included above, and appropriately laud the movie for its ability to maintain a relatively hopeful posture despite the difficulties faced by Johnson and Mulligan.
However, in my opinion, none of those outlets realized the true underlying theme of this work, that of personal responsibility.
Taking the main characters in turn, Johnson – an African American in a subculture that is overwhelmingly white – is a sweet, kind soul (as well as a freakishly talented skateboarder) for whom role models are severely lacking. Despite a stream of difficulties, Johnson is able to maintain regular employment, even excelling in a job many people would consider beneath them. In contrast to Mulligan (as discussed later), Johnson’s dating life is not a part of the film, he does not have any children or appear to have a serious significant other. On the other hand, Mulligan, a gregarious and compelling young man, bounces from job to job (mostly working as a roofer), has a child out of wedlock with a woman who later reported that he physically abused her prior to their splitting up, and routinely drinks to excess (often claiming it helps him to forget his troubles).
As the movie unfolds, it becomes clear that Johnson and Mulligan are heading down different paths, with Johnson even remarking that he was “hanging out with Zack less” to avoid some of the bad influences coming with this friend. Nearing the film’s end, a hopeful Johnson moves from Rockford to Denver to pursue a better life (where he has apparently found both employment and some commercial success as a skateboarder), and a semi-broken Mulligan sheds tears (which he is apparently not wont to do) about the mistakes he’s made in his short time as an adult, including fathering a child despite questioning his own fitness as a parent.
Possibly without realizing it and in the midst of moving discussions about many hot button topics, Liu made a remarkable film about how taking personal responsibility for one’s life – regardless of the obstacles you face – sets you up for betterment. While Keire Johnson was provided very few advantages in life, he was willing to work, has avoided parenthood before he was ready for it, and didn’t fall down the rabbit hole of substance abuse; in contrast, Zack Mulligan struggled with problems related to all three of these topics.
As both men approach their mid- to late-20s, one of them has the opportunity to carve a much better life than the people who reared him, and the other is gripped in a struggle generated by a litany of bad decisions made during the transition to adulthood. Bottom line, one young man took responsibility for the consequences of his action; the other did not. Their lives are now defined by that.