Released on October 19, Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, “Mid90s,” presents a dark, meandering story about a young boy in Los Angeles who discovers skateboarding as an escape from his deeply troubled home life. The story is not heavily plot-driven, it instead, with mixed success, attempts to paint a dynamic, visceral picture of what the skating community gave to teenage boys at the time.
The movie follows 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) as he seeks a home in the skating community away from his lonely, abusive older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges), and neglectful, single mother. Drawn in by the brazen, independent attitude of four older boys that he follows into a skate shop one day, Stevie soon becomes enamored with the excitement of skater life. Used to being beaten at home, he can take the hits required of every skater, and he eagerly does, following the older boys as they engage in many illicit and dangerous activities to gain their acceptance. There is Ruben (Gio Galicia), the second-youngest, Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), named after his IQ level, Ray (Na-kel Smith), the calm leader with pro-aspirations, and Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), Ray’s longtime best friend whose love for drinking, drugs, and girls has superseded his interest in skating. Stevie’s willingness to take risks gains him respect among the group and other skaters but he soon falls into self-destructive patterns of drinking and smoking. Every character seems to have their own down-on-their-luck backstory resulting in a mix of interpersonal drama while serving as the foundation of their love for the skating community and group bond. Skating is not glorified as a good culture to fall into, especially for a child, but the escape and tight knit community it provides are well-realized and carefully portrayed.
Jonah Hill has talked in multiple interviews about his own childhood infatuation with skating and hip-hop and he emphasizes the reverence with which he approached the making of this movie as a result. Temporal and cultural accuracy was paramount. Three of of the five boys — McLaughlin, Smith, and Prenatt — are professional skateboarders, and Smith even works for Supreme, an enormously popular skateboarding shop and clothing brand. There are close to no epic trick shots, which Hill refers to as “skate-porn” that undermines the importance of, to quote Fuckshit, “why [they] ride that piece of wood.” The aged style of filming ends up beautifully, cementing it as a period piece for those not aware of the brands and music carefully chosen from the time period. One of the most striking scenes in the movie occurs during a long shot when all the boys slowly skate in the middle of the road down a hill directly towards the camera, Stevie trailing behind, and all of the boys seeming to float along on boards they appear supremely comfortable on. The filmy quality of the image blurs the characters and makes the movie seem like it was shot long ago, adding to a memory-like quality of the movie in the best way.
In fact, the cinematography and soundtrack prove to be where the movie is strongest, fueled by Jonah Hill’s nostalgia and passion as well as cinematographer Chris Blauvelt’s talent. Filled with plenty of close-ups, the film is personal; the audience becomes attached to young Stevie even as they witness his tragic downward spiral. He carries an overserious expression on his face that constantly fills the screen during his interactions with people and, along with his nervous speaking, works wonders endearing him to the audience. The score underlying the movie is chock-full of old hip-hop: Wu-Tang, Tribe, Pharcyde, and many, many more are expertly integrated to support the emotional arc of the story. In the beginning of the movie Stevie sneaks into his brothers room with a Street Fighter 2 t-shirt on and goes through his brother’s huge, treasured collection of hip-hop CDs in order to buy him an album he doesn’t have for his birthday. Though hip-hop is by no means a significant part of the plot, the opening scene allows to see how much the movie is an ode to the parts of Hill’s childhood he most treasured.
Unfortunately, the quality of the movie is undermined by its dialogue. Almost the entirety of the movie’s dialogue is carried out among the five boys, yet it is wasted on blatant exposition and uninspired, crude banter under the banner of authenticity that winds up being mostly boring and offensive. Hill attempts to use the dialogue to add dimension to the boys, individualizing all of them, but it is only with Stevie and Ray that truly compelling characters are created. Ray has to reconcile his own hopes of going pro against best friends who are becoming increasingly reckless and ambitionless, while Stevie grows up way too fast as a result of his situation at home in an at times heartbreaking manner. It is their interaction while dealing with their respective struggles that pushes the story to its best and most real: Ray taking on a tender, paternal role by trying and failing to lead Stevie away from the side of skate-life that he himself is wary of.
Disappointingly, the movie ends on an indecisive and arbitrary note with neither the story nor any of the characters’ issues resolved. It is unclear whether it would have benefited from more or less time and what lesson the viewer was supposed to have drawn, exactly. Hill’s obsession and reverence for skateboarding is evident, yet the coarse, bummish, and dangerous life that seems to come with skating adds contrasting depth that the movie fails to take an opinion on by its lack of conclusion. It is the slice-of-life elements that best presents the story Hill wants to tell, but the plot elements, particularly dialogue, could have used more substantive thought and direction.
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