By Jeff Morris (Cincinnati, OH)
This documentary begins at an entirely different place than where it ends, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. The movie starts as filmmaker Bing Liu begins recording his friends on their skateboards when they are all kids. As we are initially immersed into their world, we feel that this is all that the film is about—a handful of kids from lower income families who escape together to the skate parks to bond over their common interest. As they begin to grow up—and we see them grow up throughout the 12 years over which this documentary was filmed—we, as the viewers, begin to realize that the movie becomes about much more than skateboarding. As the film progresses, the theme slowly begins to change from the escapism of the skateboarding to a discourse on the problems of growing up as well as a commentary on domestic violence and how it affects all their lives. Although tackling both of these subjects is interesting and ambitious, in some ways the film fails to properly parallel both of these subjects. In this way, the film seems to be someone without direction as it jumps from the stresses of growing up in the real world to the pain of domestic abuse.
As the movie starts, we are introduced to a character named Zack, perhaps the most charismatic of the filmmaker’s friends. He always seems happy, always seems friendly throughout the entirety of the film. Through the first half of the film, we come to empathize with Zack maybe more than anyone else. He and his girlfriend have a child together. After the child is born, fissures begin to appear in the relationship which seemed so happy at the start. As the problems with the relationship begin to unfold, Zack tells the filmmaker on camera a line which somewhat defines one of the ultimate themes of the movie, “When you’re a kid, you just do, you just act and then somewhere along the line, everyone loses that.” We are there with Zack as he grows up and has to suddenly deal with the responsibilities of being a father.
In the first half of the movie, these problems seems to be exacerbated by Zack’s girlfriend. The domestic scenes that the filmmaker is able to film all make it seem that Zack is at home all the time taking care of the child while his girlfriend is out drinking and having fun. Zack questions her and she becomes defensive and abrasive. During the first half of the film, we hate the girlfriend. She is an antagonist. The viewer feels that life would be so much easier for them if she were to try in the relationship. This all comes to a head in a scene where the filmmaker listens to a recording that someone made of the girlfriend during a fight. During this recording, she seems irrational. She yells that she’s going to kill Zack at the top of her lungs. She seems unredeemable. But this is only during the first half of the movie. As the second half of the movie progresses, we learn that our sympathies were with the wrong character.
The girlfriend confesses that she lost her mind during the recording because she had just been brutally beaten by Zack. At first, the filmmaker doesn’t believe this. The film then becomes about domestic abuse because the filmmaker’s stepfather had beaten him as well. The film climaxes as Bing finally confronts Zack about the accusation in the defining moment of the film. On one hand, the film seems accidentally good. What I mean by this is that the film seems like it is examining one interesting theme but then finding a more interesting theme in the process. While this worked with Icarus last year (a film about a guy trying to get away with doping at a professional level which turned into a film about going underground to avoid being assassinated by the Russian government), in this film it seems to meander and lose direction.
Some of the scenes regarding the domestic violence seem tacked on such as the interview with his mother and the tour of his home with his brother. It feels like the filmmaker went back after the initial filming was done in order to manufacture additional content to support his new theme. Also, skateboarding becomes less and less important as the film progresses but the title of the film and a scene at the end seem to present the skateboarding as if it were a metaphor for what was ultimately being examined in the film. If it did serve as a metaphor, I did not know enough about skateboarding myself to understand it. The metaphor was lost on me.