Written by D. Matthew Beyer // Edited by Andrew Busch // Media Courtesy of A24
Everyone I know who’s seen mid90’s says the same thing about it. “I liked it, it was good,” goes the common refrain, and while nobody I’ve talked to thinks it’s terrible, none of us call it great either. While Jonah Hill’s love letter to the skate culture of his adolescence finds some resonant notes, a couple of structural fumbles hold it back.
mid90’s revolves around Stevie (Sunny Suljic, whom you might recognize as Atreus from God of War PS4), a thirteen year old kid growing up in a rougher part of LA. As is to be expected in one of these bildungsroman things that are all the rage with actor-turned-directors, his family life leaves much to be desired. His orange juice loving older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges, displaying his range) physically abuses him, his father is so completely out of the picture he’s not even in the script, and while his mother (Katherine Waterston) is loving, she brings strange men into the house.
Our protagonist finds his escape and his tribe at a local skate shop, falling in with a diverse group of older teenagers, equally united by their love of skating and disappointment with their lot in life.
If that sounds more like a situation than a story, that’s because it is. mid90’s doesn’t have a plot in the traditional sense of the word. It flows more like one of the skateboarding videos that inspired it. The action moves between visually stimulating events loosely structured around Stevie’s ascent through the hierarchy of the group, finding acceptance and understanding along the way.
While the structure works– the film’s breezy eighty minute run time helps– it doesn’t build to anything. To continue the skate metaphor, some of the film’s tricks are sick, some get a little sketchy, the creative team bails out of the family plot line entirely about halfway through, but it never coheres into something greater than the sum of its parts. I left mid90’s laughing about some of the jokes and nostalgic for my formative group of friends (you know who you are) but otherwise the same. mid90’s is a life-affirming movie, but not necessarily a life changing one.
The good news is that some of the scenes absolutely kill. Without spoiling anything- because mid90’s is definitely worth seeing- there’s a scene between Stevie and a girl at a party that captures the visceral cocktail of terror and triumph that comes with a particular kind of awakening. It’s as inspired as it is uncomfortable. Another standout scene happens at the skate shop, depicting the christening of a new skateboard as a hypnotic ritual, Stevie’s wonder and reverence mirroring the audience’s own.
The skateboarding scenes strike a good balance between physical comedy and realistic injury, asking the audience to laugh at Stevie’s failures but also to admire his tenacity. It’s a film about the universal experience of falling and getting back up, expressed through the specific lens of skateboarding. Having said that, I feel that the ending will be polarizing. I for one think that Jonah Hill found the best way for such a meandering, amorphous film to end- by not ending.
So even if the structure is never going to fly, the performances ensure the film falls with style (to quote that seminal classic of the mid-90s, Toy Story). The boys carry the film as a collective, all of them imbuing their characters with an emotional depth and that particular brand of caustic compassion that anyone who has ever been a teenage boy or been friends with a teenage boy will recognize. It’s an impressive feat considering Mr. Hill cast the crew for their skating skills rather than their IMDb pages. I doubt we’ve seen the last of Na-kel Smith and Olan Prenatt, who play the alphas of the group that occasionally butt heads.
The filmmaking of mid90’s remains impeccable throughout. The film looks and feels like an artifact of the 90’s, complete with 4:3 aspect ratio and dirt on the stock. Even with the grime, the film is beautiful to watch especially the scenes of the boys skateboarding down busy LA streets, the sun rising at their back, the heat intense enough to be visible to the naked eye. The music replicates the gritty vibe of the time period through both through curated songs and original compositions courtesy of Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross. If anything, The production design might be a little too full of 90’s nostalgia, with every character decked out in graphic tees for the cartoons and bands of the time.
However, the film commits to some troubling aspects of the 90’s as well. The boys hurl homophobic slurs at each other in a true to life display of belligerent camaraderie that might make some audiences uncomfortable. I consider it more an issue with the time period than the film. I don’t think Jonah Hill needs to censor mid90’s, since the language of the film and the audience’s discomfort with it offers a chance for us to reflect on how far we’ve come in the last two decades, even if our newsfeeds read like we’re sliding past the 90’s straight back into the 1950’s.
The film’s depiction of women also comes from the bad part of the 90’s, as there are only two female characters, and both are ideas instead of characters. This is perhaps excusable due to the nature of the film- it’s about masculine friendship and boys growing up- but you only need an excuse when something is wrong. Namely, The mother feels like a missed opportunity, since she’s the only real authority figure in Stevie’s life. Children as young as thirteen adopt the personalities of their parents as well as their friends, so it’s disappointing to see a potential source of tension neglected.
All of that being said, I stand by the sentiment I heard so often after the credits rolled. I like mid90’s. It’s good. It’s not in my top five movies, and it might not even crack my top five coming-of-age movies, but I’m glad I saw it. I think you should too. It’s a nice reminder that even rough times will one day be fondly remembered- if not for what you did, than for who you did it with. The boys are the beating heart of mid90’s. The empathy Jonah Hill has for them is inspiring, and worth searching for in your own life.
mid90’s is in theaters now.