This Sundance-winning and Oscar-nominated debut feature from supremely talented newcomer Bing Liu revolves around three skateboard-loving youngsters coming of age in the socially and financially deprived Rust Belt town of Rockford, Illinois. Liu himself is one of them, the director drawing on over 12 years of intimate home-video footage to showcase the bond he shared with friends Keire and Zack – the latter quickly emerging as the joker of the pack in early scenes of drunken house parties and familiar adolescent rebellion.
It’s watchable enough stuff, but it’s not until the first skating sequences – Liu, often following behind on his own board, filming the others as they snake through multstorey car parks and eerily empty streets – that you realise you’re watching something special. Liu has a masterful eye for editing. In his care an activity that by nature can often be so jerky and stop-start becomes fluid, graceful, hypnotic – and when elevated by Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero’s sparse, instrumental score even strangely moving. And we’re just getting started.
Gradually it emerges that Liu’s ambitions stretch far beyond a simple celebration of skateboarding and its power to bring people together. The gang’s four-wheeled exploits in fact serve as an entry point into the far darker territory of childhood trauma, grief and, in particular, domestic abuse. In their younger days the trio at the film’s heart clearly came to rely on skating, together with the culture and tight-knit communities it spawns, as an escape. It was a form of therapy, always there to provide a refuge from the heartache and pain experienced at home, an opportunity to briefly impose some order and control of their own.
But what about now? With wounds far from healed and chances to skate drying up, the transition into adulthood – especially when it comes to self-destructive and increasingly desperate young dad Zack – can make for difficult viewing. Liu’s sensitivity and compassion, though, are remarkable, and while attempts to tap into wider issues of race, crime and lingering economic decline at times lack focus, there’s no denying the poignancy and power of the interviews captured on camera. At one point Liu confronts his mother about the beatings he suffered at the hands of his late stepfather. It’s intensely, almost unbearably raw, and yet by voicing and facing up to the damage done they both glimpse a way forward. A profound debut.