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Free Solo

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Alex Honnold is fully aware of the risks he takes when he climbs massive rock faces without safety harnesses or any form of support. Just one tiny mistake or mistimed judgement would lead to his sudden demise. This stark potential outcome is always present throughout the film; neither climber nor film crew ever shies away from it.

The process of ‘free-climbing’ and Honnold’s career of sheer drops and intense highs is closely examined in this intimate and frequently terrifying documentary.

The film charts Honnold’s progress as he attempts to become the first person to climb the 3,200 foot El Capitan rock-face in California’s Yosemite National Park. Facing this challenge without a rope or harness, Honnold is realistic about the dangers, but is mostly untroubled by the risk before him.

Why climbers, including Honnold, choose to put their lives at such risk is closely examined during this adrenaline-charged film. Honnold undergoes an MRI scan at one stage, and is found to have a dysfunctional amygdala – the part of the brain that helps to process fear and alarm – which may well have something to do with his choice of career.

Ultimately, free climbers love the buzz and adrenaline rush of climbing ever higher. Pushing themselves to the limit to see the rest of the world down below is a calling that they simply cannot resist.

Part of the film that is well drawn is how the intelligent and sensitive Honnold interacts with others; his new relationship with Sanni – someone with a greater emotional awareness than the self-focused free-climber – is examined sensitively.

An inspiring and rewarding journey through the limits of human endeavour, Free Solo is an exhilarating look at a world of immediate danger and committed athleticism. Managing to capture the technicalities of what it’s like to attempt a scaling of such magnitude, alongside a warmly drawn personal character study, the film is a triumph in both beauty and understanding.

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If you want corrupted power in all its lurid excess then, in the European context, you have to go to Italy which has an almost-proud tradition stretching right back to the barking mad Roman emperors. Paolo Sorrentino takes on the life of such a leader in the jaw-dropping career of Silvio Berlusconi.

If you think this crazy political biopic is overdone, you have to remind yourself that Berlusconi is real and wonder how much of the film is actually an exaggeration. That’s part of the delicious fun because, although the implications for the body politic in Italy are as serious as ever, there is no other way to depict Berlusconi.

Sorrentino is an experienced filmmaker, of course. He has made numerous films (and recently directed the TV series The Young Pope), but is best known outside Italy for The Great Beauty. There too, a lavish style and grand set pieces produced a lush visual experience that was almost overwhelming. If you want austere, go somewhere else.

However, Loro isn’t just an exercise in visual overload, there is also actor Toni Servillo’s complex portrayal to consider. It must have been a role of a lifetime in some ways. Servillo doesn’t succumb to the temptation to settle scores by portraying the man as either evil or a black hair-dyed buffoon. What is impressive about the performance is that he makes Berlusconi a complex, real person.

Perhaps Sorrentino’s final takeaway is that he was above all a great salesman with all the falsity and charm that could imply. There is a wonderful extended scene in the film where we see Berlusconi sell a dodgy investment opportunity to a lonely middled age woman down the phone. As with wooing the nation, he has to go from unknown quantity to trusted friend by saying whatever the hell it takes.

There are many riveting scenes in this long film. There was so much material that Sorrentino made two long films, a part 1 and 2 in the true Godfather tradition, which were screened at the Italian Film Festival, however here, we get a condensed version at 2.5 riveting hours.

Though Berlusconi might like to present himself as a man of the people who got there through sheer will, this is not the whole story. He also, more or less, owned the mainstream Italian media at one point, so was able to carefully project his image. Imagine Trump and Murdoch rolled into one. And then there are the ‘bunga bunga’ parties (sex parties with scores of beautiful call girls in various states of undress) without which no portrait of the Berlusconi era would be complete.

Sorrentino has a pimp-like character here called Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio) who, knowing Berlusconi’s weakness for such pleasures, assembles a small army of ‘girls’ as a way into the political inner circle. The Great Beauties perhaps. These parties in the mansion are loosely choreographed ballets of lust, over which Sorrentino’s camera swoops and whirls. Like the film as a whole, they are highly stylised. But then, as they say, the style is the man. It is certainly a memorable piece of work.

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The Kid Who Would be King

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With a nod to Rudyard Kipling, his own Attack the Block and the nostalgia of ‘80s Amblin movies (which infiltrates every other family film these days – made by filmmakers who grew up on a diet of Back to the Future and Goonies), writer/director Joe Cornish rewrites Arthurian legend in a kids’ film that offers plenty of delights but doesn’t quite package them together in a way that is wholly satisfying; hello 2 hours running time!

Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis – there are flashes where you think that Andy Serkis is doing more of his acclaimed mocap work due to characteristics inherited from dad) is a nerdy high school kid, living with his single mum, loving science experiments and hanging out with his bullied mate Bedders (Dean Chaumoo). When he is visited by a young Merlin (Imrie stealing every scene he is in; with Patrick Stewart playing the older, seemingly drunker version of the character) and realises that he is the only one that can raise Excalibur, it comes to pass that Alex has 5 days to save the world from Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) by secretly traveling cross country, rallying the troops and winning the day!

The Kid Who Would be King actually starts with a hardly subtle rallying cry that the world is being taken over by dictators; you know, like BlacKkKlansman ended, but for kids…. However, this tangent doesn’t really go anywhere apart from setting up our hero’s journey. Maybe in the sequel Alex will take on Kim Jong-un, Putin and Trump; however, here it is an origin story of a boy in suburban London who discovers that he is heir to the Arthurian legend and literally rewrites the books in the process.

As per his previous film, Attack the Block, Joe Cornish locates the fantastic among the ordinary; in this case suburbia and public schooling with the supernatural/mythological. He casts widely, with all ethnicities and genders covered when it comes to diversity on screen. This results in humour, but unfortunately little wonderment.

Aesthetically, the introduction of magic – both light and dark – into the ordinary world is impressive, but dramatically, Cornish cannot make us care enough in our hero’s journey. For such a simple story, it is narratively too expansive, and at two hours length, it is always 30 minutes behind the audience’s natural pacing for such a tale. The villains are never genuinely threatening either, and there’s a key decapitation scene that plays out falsely, and hardly appropriate for the film’s target audience.

All of that being said, there will be kids in the audience who will find this original material new and exciting, they will relate to our young protagonists, and it will encourage them to read up about Arthurian legends. They may even end up making films in 20 years’ time inspired by seeing The Kid Who Would be King in their youth.

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Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle

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Spanish actor Gustavo Salmerón (Mensaka) takes a break from being in front of the camera for this amusing portrait of his mother, Julita, who, at the age of 81 appears not to have lost any of the fire in her belly that Gustavo and his siblings recall from their youth.

We’re first introduced to the matriarch as she lies in bed contemplating her death. Deciding that she would rather be cremated, she makes an off-camera Gustavo promise that when the doctors declare she’s dead, he must stick a knitting needle into her buttocks just to make sure. If she doesn’t scream, he can burn her. This frankness, laced with a knowing sense of humour, presents itself throughout Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle.

In some ways, Julita feels like the most perfect sitcom character never created. The documentary’s title is born out of the three things she wished for as a child, which she would get, one way or the other, over the next 80 years. She summarises her long marriage to her husband as ‘I’m fat and you’re deaf’, whilst chastising him for not finding her sexually attractive. At night, she falls asleep with an extendable fork next to her bed, so that she can poke him during the night to check if he’s dead. When one of her sons shows concern for her sudden desire to start overeating now that’s she’s over 80, his pleas for rationality are drowned out by her gleefully shouting, ‘bring it on!’ In short, she’s everything we could hope to be as we enter our winter years.

However, Salmerón isn’t just using his film to prop up his mother as a source of amusement for his audience. It’s also an opportunity to give her dignity and allow a voice to be heard that’s not often done so in cinema. Julita talks about her youth and her parents, about how the actions of General Franciso Franco in the Spanish Civil War destroyed her family and her own mental health. When she talks, we see a vulnerability that cuts through her caustic nature. A vulnerability she’s all too aware of, as can be seen when talking about her loss of faith in God, she quickly changes subject to talk about how cute a tiny pair of scissors are.

Apart from two asides, Salmerón stays very much behind the camera, leaving his siblings and father to do most of the interacting with Julita. In doing so, he captures personal moments where it’s apparent that as well as her sharp tongue, the Salmeróns have had to tolerate Juliet’s hoarding which presents itself in a whole warehouse full of items, nearly all of them in labelled boxes, which she refuses to throw away because it would be throwing away a part of her history. And realising, like his mother, that the subject matter is getting too heavy, Salmerón cuts to a scene where he brother questions why Juliet would ever need 20 pairs of maracas. Perhaps, these kinds of tricks undermine what is being said at times, but it seems part and parcel of the family. As if somehow, they’ve leapt out of a Wes Anderson film, eccentricities and all.

Charming and poignant, Lots of Kids, A Monkey and a Castle is one man’s loving tribute to his mother. A love that can be found in every frame.

Screening at ACMI in Melbourne

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When M. Night Shyamalan released Unbreakable in 2000 it was profoundly misunderstood by critics and audiences alike. Hot on the heels of the massive success of The Sixth Sense (1999), the studio attempted to market Unbreakable in a similar manner, suggesting it was a supernatural thriller when in fact the movie is a lowkey, deconstructed superhero movie that homages comic book conventions. As amazing as it sounds, nineteen years ago comic book movies were considered niche propositions that didn’t make money!

Despite the lukewarm reaction at the time the film has a loyal cult following, and the followers were delighted to learn 2016’s Split occupied the same cinematic universe, setting up a potential Unbreakable sequel that featured impervious-to-everything-but-water David Dunn (Bruce Willis), split personality monster man, Kevin Wendell Crumb/The Horde (James McAvoy) and malevolent genius with brittle bones, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson). Well, the time has come, friends, and that ultimate crossover event is here in the form of Glass. So, was it worth the wait? Crikey, that is a tough old question.

Glass begins exactly as you might imagine, taking place a few weeks after the events of Split. The Horde is up to their old tricks, kidnapping nubile teenagers and preparing for the next coming of The Beast. However, David Dunn is on the case, with the help of his now adult son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) and he’s ready to punch all of The Horde’s identities into submission.

Without going into specifics, events take a turn and we end up having David and The Horde imprisoned in Raven Hill, a psychiatric hospital, where wide-eyed Dr Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) attempts to treat their “delusional beliefs” that they’re superheroes. She has a third patient who is revealed to be none other than Elijah Price aka Mr. Glass himself. It’s here that the film slows right down and the gradual build to the climax begins. There’s a delicious tension at play, because you know that eventually one – or all – of these patients will escape, but the joy comes from finding out who and how.

The problem with this section of the film, and indeed Glass as a whole, is that the slow build really takes its time. Shyamalan is a master of suspense, it’s true, but in a piece where all the main players have been introduced and explored in previous entries, it’s hard to get desperately excited about lengthy, talky sections where a shrink tries to convince our characters that their powers are imagined.

Unfortunately, however – and we’re going to tread very lightly here to avoid spoilers – when the climax finally arrives it’s… not quite what you might be expecting. Nor is it anything previously alluded to in either Unbreakable or Split, coming as a genuine shock to the system. Subverting an audience’s expectation is good, even necessary in a low budget thriller like this, but the left turn towards the end of the film – and the inevitable twist – is so extreme it may leave audience members reeling, and not in a good way.

Bruce Willis plays Dunn with his trademark grim stoicism, while James McAvoy once again relishes the chance to showcase a dizzying array of personalities, absolutely hurling himself into the role, and it’s always great to see Samuel L. Jackson in mad genius mode – although he seems to feature less than you’d imagine in a film named after him. The supporting cast showcases solid work from Anya Taylor-Joy and Charlayne Woodard (both returning from Split and Unbreakable respectively) but it’s all in service of a film that may have been written just a little too cleverly for its own good. To be clear, Glass is a well made, well acted, gorgeously shot film that is worth a look, but for audience members invested in these stories, in these characters, it may prove a somewhat sluggish and deflating experience.

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If you’re not a fan of British-raised-of-Sri-Lankan heritage hip hop artist M.I.A’s music, don’t be swayed away from this finely crafted, utterly fascinating documentary. An earnest look at the immigrant experience in urban England; the horrors of rarely reported but savagely war-torn Sri Lanka; the cost of fame; and the cheap, dismissively off-handed way that female artists with something to say are treated in the media, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A deftly stays on top of its heaving surge of subject matter, distilling it all through the lens of its wonderfully charismatic, keenly intelligent, deeply impassioned, and charmingly insouciant leading lady.

The daughter of Arul Pragasam – a key figure in the Sri Lankan civil war, and a major player in the Tamil Tiger resistance movement – Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam was raised in poverty in Sri Lanka and India, and under constant threat from the Sri Lankan government. Resettled in London, Arulpragasam dabbled in filmmaking before zeroing in on music, a skill she honed after meeting Justine Frischmann, the frontwoman for 1990s indie rock band, Elastica (remember them?). Using cheap technology and her own razor sharp wit, the rechristened M.I.A released her debut album, Arular, to great acclaim in 2005, and was hailed as a truly original voice in contemporary hip hop.

Personal and intimate, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A ingeniously utilises the reams of footage that M.I.A shot while she was a film student, much of which was created during a consciousness-raising trip to her home country, which sparked a sense of politicisation which would define most of her subsequent work. Speaking out against what she sees as the genocide in Sri Lanka, M.I.A becomes a divisive pop cultural figure, and the doco cogently captures the emotional marks that this leaves on her. Though famous for flipping the bird while playing back-up to Madonna as part of the half-time entertainment at The Super Bowl (the resultant boilover is a highlight of the doco), M.I.A is much more than a mere controversy magnet. A rare “brown” voice on the world stage, she has an undeniable authenticity, despite being constantly attacked for her now lavish lifestyle. There’s definitely some kind of gender slam going on when it comes to M.I.A, and Matangi/Maya/M.I.A succeeds in both redressing the balance by providing her with an undiluted platform of her own, and also in its crafting of a portrait of a truly original and one-off talent.

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Reed (Christopher Abbott) is a hard working bloke who doesn’t deal particularly well with stress. His wife, Mona (Laia Costa) recently gave birth to a very fussy, noisy baby and he really needs to blow off some steam. So, Reed decides it’s probably about time he kidnaps and murders a prostitute, something he’s been wanting to do for a while.

Piercing is the kind of film that lets you know, pretty early on, that it’s not fucking around. Our main character, Reed, is introduced apparently contemplating sticking an ice pick into his baby, so the tone is established in short order. It’s also, weirdly, often quite funny and even a bit delightful from time to time. The freaky weirdness kicks into high gear with the introduction of prostitute and potential victim, Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) who brings her own brand of madness to the table, making the film a quirky, sometimes nasty, two-hander.

Director Nicolas Pesce is aware he’s telling a tale in familiar territory, so keeps the pace brisk (the film runs a slender 81 minutes) and manages to maintain the curious tension throughout, even if the third act feels a little more familiar than the rest of the piece. Christopher Abbott is delightfully awful as the sweaty, mumbling sad sack wannabe serial killer, Reed, and Mia Wasikowska brings a weird, engaging energy to Jackie, even if her accent seems to spin a globe to pick a new country of origin every ten minutes or so.

Ultimately, however, your appreciation of Piercing will depend on whether you enjoy the strange story it weaves. Based on a book by Ryū Murakami, who wrote the literary inspiration for Takashi Miike’s Audition, which should give you a vague idea of what’s in store… Ultimately, Piercing is a bloody, stylish yarn that doesn’t quite stick the landing, but will keep you on your toes, wondering what fresh horror awaits.

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Welcome to Marwen

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Robert Zemeckis made Who Framed Roger Rabbit just over thirty years ago. In Roger, Zemeckis did something that had rarely been done well; he combined animation and live action in a way that made two parallel worlds merge and seem imaginatively and logically integrated. Here, in his 18th feature as director, he once again brings off the ‘impossible’ and makes it look strangely convincing even in its falsity.

The film’s success owes a huge debt to actor Steve Carell who is in every frame. Very soon we will no longer need to comment on how Carell has extended his range, or escaped the bounds of comedy, because his excellent performances in straight roles will just be taken for granted.

Here he plays Mark Hogancamp (aka Captain Hogie – he even looks a little like Bob Crane from Hogan’s Heroes), a middle-aged art photographer and puppeteer who suffered a trauma and now spends his days making tiny tableau-style dioramas about adventures in the second World War. In this world, several Barbie doll heroines help Hogie to kick Nazi ass and win the war over and over. In real life, however, Mark is a much-diminished person, scared back into near-infancy by the brutal treatment he received a few years back. When a beautiful redhead (played by Leslie Mann) moves into the neighbourhood, Mark is torn between just incorporating her into his fantasies or actually growing up and making an effort to romance her for real.

The film has already been labelled a ‘bomb’, and many will complain that the female characters are stereotypically Barbiesque and just there as sex/love objects with no will of their own. The film does also jerk its audience around a bit so that you cannot settle into its narrative easily. On the other hand, this jarring dive in and out of reality deliberately echoes Mark’s smashed up inner world. Zemeckis knows exactly what he wants to achieve and waits for us to catch up.

Technically the film is a tour de force. The way in which Zemeckis directs the puppet action sequences with realistic facial expressions is both unsettling (at first) and compellingly original. One has a feeling that some will dismiss this as an oddity but, also, that in another thirty years it may be seen in its way as a cinematic mini-landmark. A lot of really original films were just not appreciated in their day.

NB: There is a documentary about this subject matter, which you can read about here:

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On the Basis of Sex

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The early years of the enduring career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg have been given the full Hollywood treatment, presenting Ginsburg as both a role model and champion for women’s rights as well as a trailblazer in law. Currently an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, this gentle biopic touches on Ginsburg’s studies at Harvard Law School, while married to a fellow law student and together raising a toddler. (Significantly, she goes on to complete her degree at Columbia Law School, and this fact sets up the movie’s best riposte.) Spanning over a decade, the story goes on to chart her years as a mother, student, professor and, eventually, lawyer.

Directed by Mimi Leder (Deep Impact, The Leftovers) and written by Daniel Stiepleman (Ginsburg’s nephew), On the Basis of Sex stars Felicity Jones as Ginsburg, with Armie Hammer as her devoted husband Marty. Sweet and driven, Jones is perfectly cast as the attractive and diminutive woman whose small stature belied her steely determination.

Dubbed “Notorious R.B.G.” – a play on the nickname of the late East-Coast rapper Biggie Smalls, alias Notorious B.I.G. – for her ferocious intellect, Justice Ginsburg remains a pioneering litigator for women’s rights. Beginning in the early 1970s, as a professor at Columbia Law School, its first tenured woman, and as a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project, she successfully argued five cases before the Supreme Court, focusing on laws and government policies built on gender stereotypes.

In the fall of 1956, we see Ginsburg enrolling at Harvard Law School where she was one of only nine women in a class of around 500 men. The Dean of Harvard Law (crustily-played by Sam Waterston) challenges the female law students to explain themselves with his hostile query, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?”

Curiously, the film opens with a classic study for first-year Harvard Law School students, entitled Hawkins v. McGee. The memorable case is also quoted at the beginning of 1973’s The Paper Chase in which the professor famously outlines the facts of the case after scolding Timothy Bottoms’ character for not reading it in advance of class. So, while a pleasing echo is present for anyone who remembers the earlier film, the specific case provides a moment for Ginsburg’s intelligence to shine even as a classmate scores a sly point at her expense.

While the filmmakers have crafted a romanticised version of actual events, they apparently strove to make Ginsburg appear more human and less heroic. Unfortunately, this results in a disappointingly low-stakes drama where the handful of obstacles presented offer insufficient threat to an inevitably successful outcome.

Ginsburg qualified for the Harvard Law Review in her second year and continued to excel even as she juggled caring for her young daughter, Jane, and her husband, Marty, during his illness. When Marty is hospitalised with cancer, she didn’t actually attend his classes for him (as we see in the film), but she collected notes from his friends and typed up his essays per his dictation – a process that reportedly often began near midnight. When he finished around 2am, she would attend to her own studies. During this period, she apparently slept just a few hours per night, but it was her dedication – and that of their friends – that allowed Marty to graduate as planned. He thereafter received an offer from a prestigious tax law firm in Manhattan, while she fails to land a job upon graduating and becomes a law professor.

At the heart of the drama is Ginsburg’s first gender discrimination case, brought in 1972. The Ginsburgs argued as a team that the United States tax code – which denied Charles Moritz, a never-married man, the right to deduct expenses for the care of his ailing mother – was unconstitutional. The Ginsburgs recognise the case as the entry point for tackling all laws that discriminate according to gender. Crucially, she believes that an appellate court composed entirely of male judges will find it easier to identify with a male appellant, and that proves a brilliant strategy.

There’s a great scene where the opposing council avail themselves of the computer system at the Pentagon and inadvertently assist Ginsburg with a hit-list for future gender discrimination cases. For the climactic courtroom battle, amplifying the tension is necessary for the drama, but it does the subject a disservice by showing her as flustered when history indicates that she had nerves of steel.

On the Basis of Sex is an ideal companion piece to RBG, a biographical documentary focusing on the larger life and career of Ginsburg that was released in 2018.

Despite the low stakes, On the Basis of Sex has an uplifting and empowering tone that makes for an entertaining experience.

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Minding the Gap

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In the opening of Minding the Gap, we meet Keire and Zack, two young men living in Rockford, Illinois. Along with the film’s director, Bing Liu – who also happens to be their best friend of over a decade – they trespass into a building looking for a cool place to skate. When Zack admits that he has lost his bottle, the other friends agree that their pursuit for a new place to skate is foolhardy and they all merrily skate away. This opening scene provides a succinct introduction to the friendship these three men have. Zack is never berated for his ‘cowardice’ or seen to be less ‘masculine’ than his cohorts. They’re either in this together, tackling what life has in store for them, or they’re out.

Liu’s documentary follows Keire and Zack as they reconcile who they are, with who they want to be, and where they’ve come from. Zack is expecting his first child and appears to be completely unprepared. Still in his early 20s, his main pursuits appear to be beer and setting up an indoor skate park. Keire, meanwhile, is a fiercely talented skater, who doesn’t appear to have the motivation to do much else. From the get-go, skateboarding is seen as an escape from their broken homes and life commitments, but there is so much more to it than that.

Minding the Gap is an astonishingly emotional documentary that works not only as a portrait of rustbelt America, but one which also places friendship and masculinity under the microscope. Both Zack and Keire make covert references to being hit by their parents, where not even the close relationship they share with the director allows them to be too open. This is brought into sharp relief when Liu decides to interview his mother about the domestic violence they’ve lived with, and Zack’s own abusive tendencies rise to the surface after a particularly brutal fight with his girlfriend.

In both instances, we see the director becoming part of the narrative and, as a result, discovering new parts about himself along the way. As Liu interviews his mother, the camera switches to him as he tries to comprehend why someone he loves so much would stay with someone so violent for so long. It’s a heartbreaking sequence which makes Liu’s confrontation with Zack all the more potent. Interestingly, Zack is never portrayed as the documentary’s villain, but neither is he shown to be wholly innocent. His actions and beliefs are shaped by the abuse that he shrugs off consistently. These sequences will likely not settle well with some and that’s understandable; Liu doesn’t appear to want them to.

For Keire, the time spent with him sees the young skater having his eyes opened about race in America, and how he identifies as a black man. Initially portrayed as the wide-eyed innocent of the group, where his need to be liked by everyone means he’ll stay quiet rather than cause a fuss. A particular toe-curling sequence sees Keire looking increasingly uncomfortable as his friends laugh at a comedy routine peppered with racial expletives.

In both men, Liu dismantles who they are without it ever feeling intrusive. Perhaps, this is down to the close proximity they share, and Liu wouldn’t have got the same result without the trust his two subjects have in him.

Regardless, Minding the Gap is a stunning debut that manages to be clinical and frank in its approach to domestic violence, whilst maintaining the feel of a heart-warming coming of age film. It’s going to be really fascinating to see what Liu goes on to do.