Director: Jonah Hill
MPAA Rating: R
Run Time: 84 Minutes
Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, Mid90s, presents a compelling coming-of-age story about a young kid who befriends a local group of skaters who provide him a much-needed support system but, in doing so, expose him to a treasure trove of experiences that a child of that age has no business engaging in.
Sunny Suljic stars as Stevie, a 13-year-old boy growing up in, as you might have guessed from the title, the mid 1990s. He’s shy, gets frequently beat up by his troubled older brother (Lucas Hedges) and doesn’t get the attention he requires from his young mother (Katherine Waterston).
After catching a glimpse of some local skaters in his Los Angeles neighborhood who hang out and work at a skate shop, Stevie starts hanging around them until they welcome him into the fold. In a humorous exchange with the group members, he acquires the nickname “Sunburn.” The crew is mostly comprised of older kids; there’s Fuckshit and Ray, the leaders of the bunch, and then there’s 4th Grade and Ruben, who’s closest in age to Stevie.
The camaraderie between the friends feels genuine and makes for some of the best moments in the film. Like most friendships they have squabbles and can at times be bad influences, but despite the constant ragging, it’s evident they care deeply for one another. Each has his own broken-home life and uses skating as an outlet for his troubles, a common occurrence in skate culture, of which this film is absolutely loaded.
Skate references abound with mentions of pro teams like Chocolate and Girl (of which Spike Jonze was a founder) and Big Brother Magazine, and time is spent with the subtle elements of the sport, like building boards and prepping skate spots.
As someone who grew up in this exact time, was roughly Stevie’s age and was steeped in skate culture, the authenticity is brought to the screen in spades. Maybe the era was represented a bit too authentically at times, considering how many homophobic slurs are dropped, but such was the state of slang in the ’90s.
What’s not brought to the screen, however, is a meaningful plot. I’m reminded of another promising skate movie that came out earlier this year, Skate Kitchen, which followed a very similar structure and also suffered from being bogged down by unnecessary plot threads. So much of the heart of both films is spent simply spending time with the core set of characters that, when a thinly lined plot is stuffed in the latter half, it actually causes the narrative to crumble.
Hill spends time establishing the rocky relationship between Stevie and his brother, but Hedge’s character is sorely underdeveloped. There’s a brief mention of past trauma, but it’s brushed off and never revisited in any meaningful way.
Also, like Skate Kitchen, it’s the combination of everything else that makes it an inherently enjoyable experience, albeit one that nags of a missed opportunity. With great cinematography (shot on 16mm and presented in a 1.33 : 1 aspect ratio); a killer soundtrack, featuring a tons of great licensed tracks along with an original score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross; and a colorful cast of talented young performers, Mid90s is a heartfelt tribute that astutely captures growing up as a skater kid during the era.