The presence of Steve James' Kartemquin Films amid the opening credits immediately places Bing Liu's Oscar-nominated documentary Minding the Gap in the illustrious lineage of 1994's landmark Hoop Dreams. Once more, we're offered a vision of troubled American boyhood, shot over an extended time period (twelve years, in this instance) and viewed through the prism of a particular sporting subculture: here, the skater community of which Liu himself has been a part. Initially, it might look as if our freewheeling director has captured no more than a succession of random larks and pranks: his contemporaries climb buildings, smash computer monitors and smoke their way through a whole lot of weed, reminding us that this is the same goofily dishevelled world from which the Jackass franchise emerged. Eventually, however - around the time that the filmmaker's buddy Zack, a bestubbled loafer in Hawaiian shirts who resembles the lovechild of Dave Grohl and David Krumholtz, urges his girl Nina to show the camera the fetal scan that confirms he is soon to become a teenage dad - reality bites. Liu stuck around as those ever-sharp teeth stuck in, and witnessed, at often painfully close quarters, the scars they left behind. Those skateboards seem more than ever a means to escape, a way of exercising some control over the vagaries of life. (One bears the legend "This device cures heartache", much as Woody Guthrie daubed his guitar with "This machine kills fascists".) They are also, plainly, the type of childish thing that tends, with time and obligation, to be put away for good.
Like its fellow Oscar nominee Hale County..., Minding the Gap presents us with passing fragments of reality, which build, frame by frame, into a bigger, vastly more illuminating and rewarding picture. For one, we gain a sure feel for Liu's middle-American location (Rockford, Illinois), gradually lowering its shutters and emptying out in the wake of the 2008 crash, and reducing the growth prospects of everybody within its vicinity. As the world turns, we understand that Zack, backed into taking blue-collar work to keep a roof over his perilously young family's heads, has it comparatively easy; Keire, who happens to be African-American, has to navigate a far more fraught series of relationships, first with his birth father ("they call it child abuse now"), then with the unhappy cavalcade of here-today-gone-tomorrow stepfathers passing through his harried mother's doors. Liu himself registers as a generally quiet presence - this scene's designated observer-chronicler - and has to enlist his half-brother Kent to begin to address their tricky family history; even then, he approaches the subject tentatively, as but one problem among many. What's fascinating is how he seems to displace his emotions. We keep catching Liu attempting to fix the boozy Zack's growing estrangement from his boy, and nudge Keire towards a happier place, in the hope these gestures might resolve something in his own past. It's as if, upon switching on the camera one morning, he decided to turn the movie into a decade-long social experiment, no matter that there could be no guarantee of a positive outcome.
That the film compels as it does - that it exists at all - can be put down to richly human material, and two elements besides. The first is that lightweight recording technology that became widely available around the millennium, which here permits Liu to capture, in unobtrusive close-up, the arcs he and his pals cut both down at the skate park and through the wider world. Nothing in the film is more stirring than the sight of these boys with their boards, and that sight becomes only more poignant as they get older, because we know from personal experience that such afternoons off represent a rare freedom, a liberty generally denied to us as responsible, bill-paying grown-ups. The second is that gobsmackingly easy accord our American friends have with the camera, their ability - seemingly hardwired into the national DNA - to open up and talk with a near-total lack of self-consciousness on any number of deeply personal subjects. (It is almost impossible to imagine an exact UK equivalent, though perhaps stretches of Michael Apted's 7 Up project come close.) Such candour allows Liu to sit in while Keire and especially Zack get embroiled in heated domestic arguments with their loved ones; it permits him to question Keire's mom directly about her evidently lousy taste in men, and ask Nina where the scar on her forehead has come from.
Though it takes place on the homefront rather than the frontline, then, what Liu is practising here is its own form of embedded journalism, one more emotionally open and literate than war reporting tends to be. He spots things only a very dear friend would, be those the vivid, personalising details that corroborate the truths being told here (two lingering memories: the credibly messy bedrooms these men-children emerge from, and the gigantic beer stein Zack is caught supping from at the point in the film where his drinking is first suspected to be a problem) or the wider forces at play in these lives. In the edit, with the benefit of hindsight, he was especially alert to the pressures that cause relationships to fray and fail; to the attitudes and patterns of behaviour that recur in one generation after another; and, most crucially of all, to the essential decency and dignity of those trying to break the cycle. At a mere 95 minutes, the film is roughly half the length of Hoop Dreams, yet it encompasses a similar depth and breadth of experience, cutting to the quick of these lives while never once appearing to sacrifice any complexity in its urge to communicate to us how they played out. It is at once a remarkable, semi-miraculous achievement - as surviving adolescence with all limbs intact almost always is, even for those of us who've never gone near a 360 toe flip - and as comprehensive an illustration as I've seen of how muddle-headed boys fumble their way, often haphazardly and belatedly, often in the absence of anything like proper direction, towards some form of maturity.
Minding the Gap is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon and the BFI.