Inspired by his youth as a scrappy young skateboarder in West L.A, actor-turned-director Jonah Hill’s first film behind the camera, Mid90s, is a laid-back homage to 90s skate culture. His film tries to tackle feelings of displacement, masculinity and belonging through the eyes of 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a young boy living with his mother (Katherine Waterston) and his abusive older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), who finds his own tribe with a group of older kids at his local skate shop.
Stevie is in a desperate search for the man he wants to become, with no father figure to guide him and a brother that beats him he has to sneak into his brother’s room when he’s out to find visions of that masculinity he craves: what clothes to wear, what music to listen to, how to adorn the walls of his bedroom. Its not until he sees a rag-tag group of skaters trying tricks outside a local skate shop that he decides to venture into this new world. Appearing as cool, relaxed and fun as Stevie can imagine he soon falls in with Ray (Na-kel Smith), FuckShit (Olan Prenatt), Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) and Ruben (Gio Galicia). With a hand-me-down board in hand his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles adorned room is soon replaced with posters of skaters and stickers from brands and pro skaters.
Hill follows the group from here on out with the kind of documentary style that made Larry Clark and Harmony Korine a success. The boys skate around the West District LA Courthouse (that Hill himself used to skate), try and fail to land new tricks (all documented by budding filmmaker Fourth Grade), smoke, drink and go to parties. We watch as Stevie comes of age and the older boys surrounding him debate their futures, some with hopes of greater things and others just hoping to survive. The way in which the boys talk about their hopes and dreams, or lack thereof, feels very on the cuff and speaks to the ways in which teen boys will talk each other down and often not support each other, all because of the fear of being labelled ‘gay’.
Stevie is taught quite quickly what not to say or do so he doesn’t look ‘gay’ − ‘f****t’ is tossed around as casually as the N-Word but this brazen masculinity these boys attempt to uphold is only lightly chipped away at and explored. There are multiple instances of Stevie harming himself after one of his beatings at the hands of Ian, and a climactic scene with a drunken FuckShit trying to maintain his easy-going ‘fuck-it’ persona. There’s a pent-up male frustration that Hill seems keen to touch on but never offers any serious commentary or resolution to these boys’ problems. The closest he comes to an emotional resolve is with Ray, the oldest and wisest of the group, who chats with Stevie about the home lives of the group and his own personal goals of getting out of the city. Thankfully, Na-kel Smith is the most talented of this group of largely non-actors, and his role feels homely and lived-in, rather than the caricature that FuckShit’s character lays down.
The film’s authenticity seems to appear of paramount importance to Hill on an aesthetic level, the soundtrack, clothing and landscapes perfectly encapsulate the nostalgic youth he wants to convey. This authenticity just often doesn’t shine through in some of the characters’ motivations. As an avid watcher of skating documentaries, I never found the passion within Hill’s characters that you see in films like Minding the Gap, Waiting for Lighting or All This Mayhem. We never really know why any of these boys go out with their board so avidly every day, other than Stevie, who finally has some friends.
It’s difficult to grasp which direction Hill wanted to head in. On one hand he has the clear understanding of toxic masculinity and its damaging effects, especially through a sport so reliant on recklessness and putting yourself in harm’s way. But on the other it sometimes feels like he just reaches for the controversial shot, Stevie harming himself, a sexual encounter with an older girl and the films final scene all point to a desire to sit amongst those early works of Clark and Korine, Kids and Ken Park, whose displays of deadbeat teenagers in the skating community were shockingly visceral.
If anything, Mid90s is one of few fiction skateboarding films that possesses both aesthetic flair and any amount of emotional depth. Hill heart-warmingly manages to portray the loyalty in the friendships created through skating and lets them play out in this slice-of-life style with no questioning or judgement. While his intentions do seem conflicted due to his own nostalgia for the subject matter, Jonah Hill’s low-key indie flair does cement him as an exciting filmmaker to watch in the future.
Skateboarding is largely a sport of falling and repeatedly having the courage to get back up, and Stevie’s goofy smile and determination to press on is certainly something Hill himself should adopt for his next feature, because eventually the trick will land.
Dir: Jonah Hill
Scr: Jonah Hill
Cast: Sunny Suljic, Katherine Waterston, Lucas Hedges, Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Gio Galicia, Ryder McLaughlin, Alexa Demie
Prd: Scott Robertson, Alex G. Scott, Jennifer Semler
DOP: Christopher Blauvelt
Music: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Run time: 85 minutes
Mid90s is available on Digital now and on Blu-Ray and DVD on August 25th