Three young men, Liu, Zack, and Keire, are trying to grow up, become men, beginning as hyperkinetic teens devoted to skateboarding. The footage of the skateboarding is elegant and fluid and shows the beauty of movement. Liu, the director, is one of the skaters, and I wondered if he filmed while riding. In Rockford, IL where they live, there is little employment that can keep them going and fed.
Zack has a pregnant girlfriend, Nina, who gives birth to Elliott, then leaves him because he is abusive and alcoholic. Zack goes downhill rather quickly, and his alert baby is onto it. Nina, the mother, claims she is a little girl. The whole question of maturity hovers over each of these people who look like adults, but cannot demonstrate that they really are. Zack’s mother left when he was two. His father was not around. It is not surprising that he abandons his family. But it is disturbing to watch his deterioration before our very eyes,.
Zack moves to Denver, leaving his son behind. He works in a fast food restaurant. His son Elliott has charisma and for a short time is the star of the movie. He is just a pregnancy bump in the beginning, someone to be diapered, and then starts walking, talking, and learning how to be in the world, giving us a chance to appreciate the many years Liu spent filming his friends, how it adds depth to their story.
But the gist of the story is how these three young men, so damaged in their childhoods, are forced into becoming men before they are ready without the love that would prepare them to become loving in return. They push away the pain of what they face in their troubled childhoods. All three lived with extremely abusive fathers. Liu’s mother was choked by her husband who also beat her sons. He has a half brother who talks about his father being abusive.
“I don’t want to be alone.” says Liu’s mother, trying to explain why she didn’t leave the man who was abusing her and her children. It does not seem fair to Liu’s mother that he uses her as a subject when it is excruciating to both of them. An act of masochism or sadism or could it be revenge? “But it hurts you?” “Yeah. But so did my dad. And I loved him to death.”
What does it mean to be a man? Working, taking care of your family, loving your wife, none of these things seem possible. They all just want to be skateboarding. It takes them out of their troubles. The profile of the young men parallels the profile of Rockford and its hard times.
The filmmaker gets close to each of the people – the three subjects—and their parents – and gets them to reveal their inner selves. It almost feels like a violation of privacy. Keire, who lives with his mother, rues having said something mean to his father just before he died. Keire’s mother tells Liu at one point that he is getting too personal, and needs to take a break. Keire goes to the cemetery on Father’s Day in search of his dad. Zack drinks constantly. Keire who bonds with his brothers and his nephews, and keeps in touch with his mother seems in a much better place. There is frank discussion about racism.
Men need positive role models to become successful. It is tragic and predictable that Zack would abandon his young son, and beat his mother.“You can’t beat up women. But bitches need to get slapped sometimes.” says Zack. What will Elliott become? Who will he look up to ? His father? What will he make of this movie when he is old enough to understand it?
Keire moves to Denver, perhaps to join up with Zack. We do not learn what happens to the child support suit pressed by Nina.
Bing Liu, director and skateboarder, has gotten very close to crossing a line documentary filmmakers sometimes are tempted to cross, that is, putting on the screen things that can come back and damage the subjects later. But it is hard to look away. It is all so real, so dramatic, and sad.
(Be warned that if you watch this on PBS – they keep showing ads on the lower left corner of the screen, and the channel promotion never disappears from the lower right side. They also blank out the obscenities.)