Editor’s Note: This review originally ran as part of our Toronto International Film Festival coverage. Also, be sure to revisit Brad Avery’s recent Vanyaland piece Board of Education: ‘Mid90s’ and the art of skateboarding videos.
When we first meet Stevie (Sunny Suljic), the innocent kid at the heart of Jonah Hill’s directorial debut Mid90s, he’s getting his ass whooped by his older brother (a scary Lucas Hedges) for messing with his tightly-organized room in the small house that they share with their mother (Katherine Waterston). She’s rarely around to stop Stevie’s torment, given that she’s a young single mother trying to balance a stressful work life with the needs of her boys, and when she is, she’s normally in screaming matches with her elder son in their living room. One can easily understand the allure of that bedroom for Stevie: It’s a paradise exclusively curated by the only male close to adulthood in his life, stacked high with ball caps and weights and a collection of hip-hop’s best on CD. He admires his bro, even if the affection isn’t returned, but he wants friends desperately, ones who won’t beat him up just for being around.
By chance, he runs into a group of local skaters having the time of their lives — challenging authority, being free — on the street in front of the store where they hang out. They’re a charismatic bunch, from a variety of backgrounds, each dodging the heat that they feel in their lives: For ringleader Ray (an excellent Na-kel Smith), it’s navigating the pro world where he’d like to wind up one day, for Fuck-Shit (Olan Prenatt), it’s that he probably won’t be having the kind of future he dreamed about, for Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), it’s his ambitions of becoming a filmmaker and the means he’ll never have to realize them, and for Ruben (Gio Galicia), it’s his abusive mother, who sends him fleeing into the streets because of her beatings.
It’s Ruben who helps Stevie get involved with the group and sets him up with his first real board, replacing Stevie’s brother’s hand-me down with a real, if used, deck. He quickly becomes party of the group, and they introduce him to a whole new world of freedom on the LA streets in good ways (helping him build confidence and making him brave enough to stand up to his brother) and bad (drugs, recklessness).
If it sounds familiar, you’re not totally off-base. It’s true that Hill pulls from the great dramatic skate movies — Larry Clark’s Kids and Catherine Hardwicke’s Lords of Dogtown come to mind — and that his film comes amidst a revival of the genre, with films like Skate Kitchen and Minding the Gap pushing it to the forefront of the film industry, but that’s hardly his fault that a trend coalesced before he even screened the thing publicly. It isn’t without its issues as well, and there are numerous things that have already been discussed online that are true. The film has its issues with women (a scene in which Stevie has an awkward sexual encounter with a girl several years his senior, and Hill tries to offset the ick factor by making a joke out of it, which, predictably, fails), and the constant usages of gay slurs, even if era-appropriate, seem awkward coming from a person whose “heart was broken” when he lobbed the single worst one at a photographer a few years back.
Still, there’s something about his approach that makes Mid90s stand out to me and, by its end, really won me over. Maybe it’s the fact that Mid90s is aesthetically tops: Shot on 16mm film, it looks grainy enough to pass for the real thing, and its soundtrack, featuring era-appropriate but never obvious needle drops and an excellent score composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is suitably hosanna-worthy (immediately after leaving, I tried to see if A24 had put up a playlist of all the songs in the film, but no dice).
It could be the way Hill deals with his young cast, as their rapport feels authentic and their conflicts don’t feel simple or patronizing. Maybe it’s that his love for that certain period of skate film informs the movie’s structure with blissful results at the end, that has shades of Assayas’ Irma Vep or, perhaps, had it been done poorly, JJ Abrams’ Super 8, in its magical depiction of the fruits of creation. But I think it’s the torturous depiction of frustrated adolescence here that moved me. Behind each of these characters is a wounded child looking for acceptance, and in this, we get a glimpse at what that absolution looks like. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of TIFF.