As soon as I finished this, I immediately rushed to Google Bing Liu’s e-mail, which is something I’ve never done before. Watching this movie and seeing all the footage Liu has been amassing for years and years before gradually folding into a narrative was beyond inspirational to someone who considers the art of telling stories to be too big, too daunting, and too team-oriented to be able to do alone. As a filmmaker (and a struggling one at that), I couldn’t help but feel a bit jealous — jealous that boys were more encouraged to play with cameras, less afraid to document in public, less reluctant to be themselves in front of one another. That same masculinity, brashness, and fearlessness turn out to be the thread that holds the film together for better or, many times, for worse. Liu managed to take this footage of his childhood, friends, and the spirit of youth (that Fourth of July scene… I was speechless!) and turn it into a confessional and, as Kiere so boldly puts it, “free therapy”. Hidden under the guise of a skate film lives and breathes a portrait of three midwestern teens as Liu shares the nuances of masculinity, the expectations of growing up, and the effects of loss and hushed-up anguish to produce one of the most profound documentaries in years.
Many people are featured in this story, but the main subjects are Kiere, Zach, and bing, the filmmaker. They’re all skateboarders growing up in Rockport, Illinois with uniformly unstable families, recurring cycles of abuse, and a youthful powerlessness in the face of larger-than-life adversity. We’re introduced to the three of them as they skate around in the opening credits with cinematography that would make the most uncoordinated person want to pick up a board and give it a go. I felt as though I could watch these parts forever; it felt like meditation in the same vein of the long, peaceful shots of Kiarostami’s movies. They weave in and out of one another so seamlessly with an almost psychic intuition of where the others will be at all times. It’s a tour of Rockport with the most self-assured tour guides in town. It’s the perfect way to open a movie.
Kiere is one of the few black people seen in the movie and he is especially alone in his group of skater friends. Like most minorities surrounded by white people, he faces constant bombardments of racial discomforts, like careless utterances of the n-word from white kids, showings of unfunny, racist youtube videos, and perhaps most cringe-worthily, a moment where a white friend pleas oppression when he says he was the only white kid in his elementary school class and worried he was in “danger” when the black kids “found out” what white people did. An unnamed woke kid (!) jumps in to tell him he’s wrong and he retorts with something about class struggle and how the oppression of “trailer trash” is similar to that of black people. This is shut down once more, but not by Kiere. He sits on the couch, uncomfortably, but we hear a voiceover of him reciting wise words from his late father about how if he could choose his race again, he should choose to be black, as it would only make him so much stronger.
It’s true — he didn’t seem to worry about the same petty issues as some of his friends. He briefly (and somewhat playfully, uncomfortably) spoke about being pulled over by the police and how they pulled out a gun while he checked his glove department for the files they asked him to show. His dad was right: he was strong, and it’s his very relationship with his late father that inspired Liu to have Kiere be a main figure in the film. Their bond isn’t painted in a positive light throughout the first half of the film as he speaks about being abused, running away, and having his last words to his father be “I hate you”. As the film progresses and Kiere matures, we see him come to cherish his father more and more, often by quoting him. Suddenly, he forgives him. He misses him. He appreciates his family once more as he sees the impermanence of friends as time goes on, jobs change, and people move further and further away from the fearless childhood crusaders we believe them to be. He shows his vulnerability, crying several times about his father toward the end and, finally, achieving his dreams of skipping town and breaking the cycle.
Zach, on the other hand, was not so lucky, at least not by the time the film ends. He starts off as the film’s most amicable character; he has charisma, he’s funny, he has a loving relationship with his girlfriend, who we find out is pregnant pretty much right away, and he’s a good time guy! He takes care of his kid and seems to love him more than anything and sure, he and his wife, Nina, fight, but what couple doesn’t? As the years pass, however, the darkness within him begins to envelop him from the inside out. Their bickering turns into yelling and threats of physical violence. Soon, the threats turn into action. It’s hard to hate him for it at first: all we’ve seen up until this part is him being easy-going, funny, and apparently, a good father.
After it’s revealed by way of a recording that’s originally played to make Nina look crazy, we start to see him in a different light, thanks to Liu’s willingness to press his friends on the issue and changing his angle to be more true to who he is at the time: a not great guy. He’s careless; he abandons his dog and son as he makes an unexpected move to Denver (and an expected move back). I recognized Zach, to some extent, in so many people I know: instantly likable, chronic people pleasers who end up being, well, not so cool after all. It’s rare to see this ugliness in someone so hell-bent on keeping up appearances, though, which is what makes Liu’s lens on him so special. His most powerful moment happens when he explains just how much he hates himself, how much he sucks, how much his disabling alcoholism stems from his inability to cope with his past and the road he can’t seem to stop going down. Intercut with the most climactic moments of Liu and Kiere’s lives, it feels earth-shattering. It’s easy to call people out, to take part in ‘cancel’ culture, and to write someone off, but it’s difficult to hear a wounded person who wounds others let it all hang out.
Finally, we have Bing Liu himself. We see him mostly through his own amateur fisheye-adjacent archival footage and interviews from the owner of a neighborhood skate shop and his half-brother, Kent. Liu tells Kiere that his own story was what inspired him to make the film, and the angle is revealed (although it’s quite obvious beforehand): his mother married a man who “couldbe sweet”, but also beat him and his mother frequently. Sound familiar? In an intense and moving scene where we see Liu interviewing his mother behind mountains of gear, he confronts her about what happened and, most importantly, why she never stopped him. His mom, with more guilt and regret in her face than some could stand to watch, goes on to tell him that she wishes she did something and she can’t and it hurts her all the time. She lives with his pain every day and she wants so desperately for him to heal and if this documentary is allowing him to do that, she’ll talk as long as she needs to. Liu eventually cuts as it gets too painful for the both of them. It’s clear that he loves his mom and doesn’t want to see her suffer, and at this point, it becomes easy to believe that the movie isn’t about his own redemption as much as it is creating an understanding for his mother, her position, and hopefully, creating a better future where knowledge is power.
I’ve described their stories as isolated events and upbringings, but to really understand the movie, you have to understand the relationship between the three. Like all carefree kids, their differences seem to mean nothing compared to their joint love for skateboarding and dicking around. It isn’t until responsibilities come in that they’re forced to take inventory of their emotions and face the music — that is, to make decisions and start growing up, “even though it’s gonna suck”. And, for some of them, namely, Zach, suck it does.
One of the most interesting techniques the film uses is its hyper-focused Rockport b-roll. I’d imagine many non-midwestern viewers don’t even know where Rockport is (i had to look it up, admittedly), yet it’s omnipresence resonates throughout the entire movie. Liu uses well-timed billboard inserts and local news snippets to open up the story from just the boys to all of Rockport, and from all of Rockport to the world.
Most of all, this documentary is important because it makes us feel. I found myself so enthralled with the feats of these boys that I was rooting for them with ferocity at points and more disappointed than I have been with my own friends at others. It shows us nuance in growing up, in breaking cycles, in understanding how to navigate the world from an unprivileged and damaged position with real footage that spans throughout so many years compiled by just one passionate person. It shows us how these cycles of abuse start and teaches us that it’s possible for them to end. It ends on a note that’s hopeful — one that believes the best is possible for the subjects, Liu’s friends, and for all of us, too.