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Tapping the Source: ‘Momentum Generation’ and ‘Minding the Gap’ are Profound Portraits of Friendship

These two 2018 documentaries—one about surfing, one about skateboarding—chronicle the ways in which shared obsession can bring people together and tear them apart

Getty Images/Hulu/Ringer illustration

Something about riding a board makes prophets out of the people who ride them. The act of riding becomes spiritual. The board becomes an anchor in a shifting and indifferent universe, the solution to all of its problems, even as it creates new ones. As long as you can go again, you can be OK.

There’s a moment in Momentum Generation, Michael and Jeff Zimbalist’s new documentary (full disclosure: Ringer CEO Bill Simmons is one of the film’s executive producers) about a surrogate family of preternaturally talented surfers of the same name, when Shane Dorian and Benji Weatherley talk about a large set of 25-foot waves off of Oahu’s North Shore that nearly killed them in the early ’90s. The interview segment is interspersed with B-roll of a beautiful blue lip (if you think of a wave as a sword, that’s the business end) crashing down violently and a surfer getting spun like a loose sock in a washing machine. The two make the exact same sound of muffled almost-breathing when describing their shared wipeouts—like whatever grasping for the safety of the surface while being dragged down into dark below sounds like. When they finally make it to the beach they’re wet, hysterical, and throwing up. Then they turn around and head right back out into the surf.

Dorian and Weatherley, like the rest of the Momentum crew, attribute this madness to the ethos of “you won’t go”—which is actually a provocation, a directive to go, to take the risk. It’s something they learned from the late Todd Chesser, a pro surfer who they all desperately wanted to be like when they were younger, hanging around the same home on the beach in Hawaii. He was their friend, their compass, and their drill sergeant, shaming them into greatness.

As a coward, this whole thing baffled me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the normal stuff that would consume a normal person if they were being held under the wave. I thought about respiratory acidosis, which is what happens when the blood becomes acidic by retaining the carbon dioxide normally expelled by the lungs, and how deeply OK I would be with never coming anywhere close to it. Everything is not like something else, and drowning, as you’ll hear from anyone who’s experienced it and lived to tell about it, is a singular, terrible thing that you can’t possibly imagine. Dorian and Weatherley use their hands to describe the feeling when words and sounds can’t, but not with loathing, even though Chesser died by drowning in 1997. In their voice is something closer to respect. Or gratitude.

Part of riding a board seems to be treating your nicest lines and biggest falls with equal reverence. Joy and pain are inextricable from one another. It’s almost as if why these people love doing it is none of their business. Bing Liu’s boldly personal Minding the Gap, which arrived earlier this year, is a documentary about skateboarding that’s actually a documentary about Liu’s group of childhood friends trying to become complete people, and maybe, if they can, escape Rockford, Illinois. One of these friends is Keire Johnson, who now makes his bones as a professional skater in Colorado. Near the end of the film, Johnson goes looking for closure in the form of his late and formerly abusive father’s headstone. It’s Father’s Day. After a frantic, tearful, and finally successful search, he goes skating to relieve the stress—and eats it. Liu asks why Keire loves to skate, even though it hurts him sometimes. “Well, I mean, so did my father, and I still love him,” he says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

Momentum Generation moves along at a necessarily faster clip than Minding the Gap because the Zimbalists are doing mini-bios of a starting baseball lineup’s worth of surfers who changed the sport: Dorian, Weatherley, Kalani Robb, Rob Machado, Ross Williams, Pat O’Connell, Taylor Knox, and of course, 11-time World Surf League champion Kelly Slater, who has his shirt off for nearly all of the movie. Thanks to legendary surfing filmmaker Taylor Steele, who made the original and epochal Momentum, there’s a near-endless supply of archival footage—of the group surfing, buzzing each other’s heads, pranking each other, goofing off. This is cut with the requisite straight-to-camera chats, in which each surfer talks about what surfing did to and for them, how it rescued them and took them to new heights.

A bit more on what I mean by “rescue.” Momentum Generation is concerned with how different people traverse that weird and confusing space between childhood and adulthood. It begins, like Minding the Gap, with unsparing accounts of raw childhoods and neglectful, absentee, or abusive parents (with the exception of a magical few, like Benji Weatherley’s mother, who moved their family to Oahu and opened her home to a gaggle of sunburnt kids who would eventually be legends). Momentum Generation tells the story of generational talents—the same ones who made knee-length board shorts and Pro Surfer and FUSE TV and Blink-182 possible—but at its core, it’s a story about friendship, and what a strange, indecipherable thing it is for everyone involved, especially when you throw in the drive it takes to be regarded as the world’s best at anything. That edge is equally irreconcilable with the Zen-like, agrarian dream of surfing.

Like, how do you square all the talk of oneness and the great principles shared with the fact that Kelly Slater very possibly screwed his then-best friend Rob Machado out of the 1995 Pipe Masters by offering up a high five while Machado was coming out of a tube in the middle of the championship heat?

In Momentum Generation they reflect on the incident, like they reflect on their surfing lives, with the acceptance distance brings, but also with arresting clarity on how they felt at the time. This is true of Slater and Machado on their high five, but also the group on their first sponsored tour, Chesser’s death, the rifts it formed, and the personal crises it catapulted the crew into.

The young men in Minding the Gap are in a constant state of crisis, and reality does its work on friendship in different ways. As they grow into new priorities—fatherhood, fiscal responsibility—they too have to make hard decisions about whether or not they’re truly a part of something larger than themselves. They also decide when to be selfish. But instead of holding a friend accountable for something like an unfortunate appearance on Baywatch, Liu has to find a way to confront his friend Zack about his abusive relationship with the mother of his child and self-destructive habits.

Minding the Gap ends with an ellipsis: Johnson’s move to Denver is the closest we have to a happy ending. There’s a little more tidy resolution to Momentum Generation, since everyone’s sitting in soft lighting recounting the story to you. The interviews were filmed at the house Slater bought in 2017 on—where else?—a beachfront on the north shore of Oahu. He sent out a group text and invited all of his friends over for some group therapy. Then they turned around and went back out into the surf.