Mid90’s Film Review
Words: Adam Abada
In a summer full of coming-of-age skate films, Jonah Hill’s directorial and writing debut was the last to land. Mid90s is the story of preteen Stevie, played by an exuberantly emotional Sunny Suljic, a west LA kid who finds escape and solace from his difficult home life in the companionship of a group of older skaters. Constantly beat up by his older brother (Lucas Hedges), who is his only example of what’s cool, and outgrowing the companionship of his young mother (Katherine Waterston), Stevie finds himself enamoured by a group of skaters outside a local skate shop. One day, he musters the courage to poke around inside and is taken under the tutelage of the youngest member, Ruben. He tries to learn how to ollie in his driveway, starts wearing baggier clothing, and hangs out in the background of their world until, inexplicably, he finds his position upgraded when the older guys take a liking to him. This transition plays out in Suljic’s expressive face; discerning curiosity becomes quizzical observation when he sits in on their discussions and, finally, an ear-to-ear jubilant grin emerges when he’s asked to join them skating one day. These emotional arcs, smartly portrayed by Hill through Suljic’s expressions, are present in many of the film’s scenes and recall the true childhood joy in earning acceptance from someone you look up to.
Mid90s is shot on Super 16mm film in the square, standard film aspect ratio that was used in the pre-HD days of the actual mid-1990s. Hill interestingly and authentically sets the scenes, placing the camera in the middle of streets and craning up to school rooftops. The urban grit associated with skateboarding blends seamlessly with the sun-soaked asphalt locales. At times, logos almost bombard the frame constantly reminding us that, lest we forget, this story takes places in the nineties and that Jonah Hill knows what’s up.
The main action of the film follows Stevie and the group of high-school skaters, all trying to flee their own problems, from skate spots to parties, making many winking references to 90’s skate culture along the way. The teenage version of bar banter – hanging out shooting the shit on various couches with 40 oz bottles of malt liquor – provides Stevie and, by proxy the audience, with most of the context for this new world. Issues of race and sex come up as well as important anecdotes such as why certain people get certain nicknames: Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) was given his nickname in honor of his reaction to tricks he likes (an exclamation of “Fuck…Shit…that was dope!”). Fourth Grade is called such because of his perceived level of intelligence. Indeed, Stevie himself receives a nickname: Sunburn. It is given to him by Ray, played by real professional skateboarder Na-Kel Smith in an endearingly gentle turn, when he likes his response to a question about whether or not black people get sunburns. Stevie beams and soon begins to see Ray as the coolest: he easily has the best style on his board and, in contrast to most of the crew, is ambitious about his skating and sees this passion as a potential way out of his current circumstance. The most responsible of them all, Ray is drawn to Stevie, who soon becomes the crew’s token little-guy – much to Reuben’s dismay.
This relationship between Ray and Stevie is where much of the film’s message come through. Ray is there to celebrate with Stevie after a pot-smoking, alcohol binging party where he hooks up with an older girl. He’s also there after a blowout fight between Stevie and his mother, sitting him down to impart his knowledge to the younger skater. He opens up to Stevie about the skeletons in his closet and advises Stevie that you never know how bad somebody else has it. Above all, he imparts that when you feel bad – it’s time to skate.
Ray represents an entire group of role model older skateboarders, important to any young skater’s development, who pass their knowledge down. This is where the script gets away from Hill, a bit. Especially as someone who supposedly spent a lot of time at the skateshop and around older skaters as a kid, he should know that this kind of conversation would never actually happen. It is learned by observation, an osmosis that, if you’re wary enough, slowly seeps in over time. Though seemingly small, this is an extremely important piece, one that undermines much of the film’s authenticity. Mid90s wants its audience to know about the saving grace of skateboarding so bad that it can’t restrain itself from letting this just play out on the screen without overt explanation, resulting in a feel that is less like an insider representation of the culture than Hill intends. Spike Jonze, for instance, who started his career filming skateboarding and is the inspiration for the character Fourth Grade, went on to continue making skate videos when he hit the big time, not caring to try to over articulate the nuances of skateboarding to his newfound mass audience.
Where this screen time could have been better-served is in fleshing out the domestic situations that lead so many skaters into the street and shop in the first place. The restraint that should have been held around the redemptive power of skateboarding could have instead been applied to the character’s home lives. Scenes such as one where Stevie’s older brother, Ian, is seen crying in clear anguish after chasing him around and beating him, or a vivid self-harm sequence in which Stevie inflicts a burn on himself with a comb after stealing money from his mom, hint at the complex family drama that boils beneath the surface. Ian is clearly hurt and bitter that as a kid he didn’t get the attention his younger brother gets. I understand the want to let these play out as observational episodes but, given the amount of over-explaining when it comes to the skateboarding, it drastically sells them short. When the film’s final act haphazardly ramps to a conclusion 90 minutes in, squeezing in a dramatic climax that represents the potential consequences of teenage bad behaviour, the brevity leaves us with a lot of questions. Questions we may have benefited from seeing answered over another few scenes with Suljic’s expressive wonderment rather than Hill’s eager pen.
Mid90s will be released in theaters October 19th.