Directed by Jonah Hill
Starring: Sunny Suljic, Katherine Waterston, Lucas Hedges
Rated R for pervasive language, sexual content, drug and alcohol use, some violent behavior/disturbing images – all involving minors.
Runtime: 1 hour 25 mins.
I fully confess that I am not a skateboarder. Where and when I grew up, they simply didn’t exist. So, when it comes to understanding skateboarding culture, I am at a loss.
Mid90s is writer and director Jonah Hill’s exploration of that culture at a moment in time when both hip hop and skateboarding in Los Angeles had a pirate’s reputation. Antiauthoritarian, flaunting their moves where they weren’t welcome, individuals in the skateboard culture had many similarities to rock and roll in the 1960s. The one exception — they had wheels.
Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is a 13 year old on the edge of adolescence. His home life consists of his older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges), who uses Stevie as a punching bag, and his mother, Dabney (Katherine Waterston), a struggling single mom and part-time hooker.
Walking home with his mom from the grocery store, Stevie notices some older kids skateboarding outside a local board shop and decides to worm his way into their company. The group consists of Ray (Na-kel Smith), the expletively named F***sh*t (Olan Prenatt), Ruben (Gio Galicia) and Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin).
At first, Stevie just hangs out quietly. When the group finally gives him an invitation, he steals money from his mother to buy his brother’s skateboard. From there, he practices his moves in private to try and keep up with the group. The group’s life involves some dangerous stunts and a willingness to indulge in the skater lifestyle: drugs, sex, alcohol, riding the streets and doing risky stunts that nearly get Stevie killed.
What comes to light is that Stevie’s life has much in common with those of the group members. Though they all come from different races and economic backgrounds, all of them are struggling to survive to manhood.
In Mid90s, Hill’s directorial debut is stripped down. He wanted a strong sense of authenticity to permeate the film. He brought in skilled skaters, some with acting experience (others . . . not so much). He was fortunate enough to find people that could carry out their roles as both skaters and actors without straining the story’s credibility.
In addition, the music is as much a part of the film as the skating. Hill’s goal was to capture skater culture and atmosphere, and you can’t separate skateboarding from the music. In addition to the soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the film includes hip hop and rock tracks from bands both famous and not. Samples include A Tribe Called Quest, Jeru the Damaja, Pixies, Gravediggaz, Nirvana and Cypress Hill, to name a few, proof that L.A. in the ’90s had its own underground sound, not to mention the beats that were coming out of Compton and South L.A.
While all this may sound like a tribute to a nostalgic past, Hill pared the writing and directing down to its basic essence, no sentiment allowed. These are struggling young men but they don’t view themselves as boys to be pitied. Rather, they take pride in their survival and their ability to take punches, literal and figurative.
Sometimes they’re even insightful. A conversation with a homeless man in a park. Ray’s poignant council to Stevie. These are moments when life is clear to them, even if their choices may be self-destructive.
Mid90s is a small film, raw in its lifestyle and language. But while Hill may move on to direct bigger projects, he acknowledged that this film was important to him because the subject matter spoke to his own youthful journey and to those who came of age in Los Angeles in the 1990s.
In that sense, it was important for him to get it right, to make sure that he told the story as it was without embellishment. Whether or not you’re into skateboarding, Mid90s finds the humanity within the sport, explores the journey that is manhood and shows how some boys actually survive to tell the story.