Mid90s Review: First Try, All Bolts

Mid90s radiates charm and passion, and is one of the best of the year.

In Jonah Hill’s directorial debut Mid90s, we are treated with silence, right when we cut away from the A24 logo consisting of clattering skateboards. The camera is still. The film’s protagonist Stevie (Sunny Suljic) bursts into the hallway of his middle class home in Los Angeles. He gets chased down by his older brother, Ian(Lucas Hedges), and is subject to a brutal beating. The premise of Mid90s is nothing foreign or out of the ordinary, yet Hill directs the project with such genuine care and appreciation that it breaks the mould.

Following that scuffle, Stevie enters his older brother’s room, perusing his record collection in amazement. The CD rack is packed full of 90s hip hop gems, from Craig Mack to Tha Alkaholiks. Although films set in culturally influential periods like the 1990s can overindulge in nostalgia worship, Hill doesn’t try to throw a reference at the viewer every chance he gets. The production design feels natural, whether that be a Cure poster in a room, or a dormant diskman. Stevie later picks a record for his brother’s birthday that he doesn’t have. This gift is met with a mix of relative annoyance and acknowledgement at a Japanese dinner by Ian, while their single mother(Katherine Waterson) looks on. The next day, Stevie encounters a local skate crew across the street on Motor Avenue, viewing Fuckshit(Olan Prenatt) land a kickflip to impress some older women. This has a profound impact on Stevie, who is just looking for an excuse to escape the house. Through an first encounter at the shop, Stevie is introduced to the crew, who are in the middle of a heated debate regarding a parental themed Would You Rather: Fuckshit, a teen with long, flowing hair; 4th Grade(Ryder McLaughlin), the silent videographer; Ruben, Stevie’s first friend in the group(Ryder Mclaughlin) and the leader of the pack: Ray(Nak-el Smith) who works at the shop and is most likely to go pro. The exchange between the crew members feels slightly awkward, based off the fact that most of the cast are not trained actors, yet they improve at delivering lines as the film progresses. The ball is in Stevie’s park during his next visit to the shop, when 4th Grade aloofly asks the question “Do black people get sunburnt?”. Stevie’s nonsensical answer lets him into the group, and they begin hanging out, cruising down the freeway on their boards. Christopher Blauvet’s 16mm cinematography shines, delivering the streets of LA in muted yellow tones, whilst the crew skates in their uniform: baggy skate company shirts from Chocolate and Girl Skateboards, matched with equally big jeans. Hill used to hang out at his local shop, Hot Rod, and was a member of the scene despite not being very proficient at skateboarding. The skate culture depicted in the film feels legitimate, placing the viewer in a world where little parts of modern skate culture are sprinkled in: Gary Rodgers, a host on Thrasher Magazine’s Skateline is cast as an extra, and Donovan Piscopo is a Chocolate pro that Ray tries to approach, in hopes that he can be put on ‘flow’ and receive free product from the company. A fun day out in Hill’s version of LA consists of skating in the Santa Monica Courthouse, and hoping to land a trick on the ledges before the cops come.

Yet, Mid90s feels less like a retired skater trying to cram Marc Gonzalez footage down our throats, and more of a character focused drama, with comedic elements mixed in. Stevie progresses up the social ranks when hanging with his friends, experiencing his many firsts: first Ollie, first encounter with law enforcement, where a hilarious exchange between the boys and a police officer occurs (the topics of discussion pertaining to Jesus’ cigarette brand of choice and Fuckshit’s true ethnic identity). But no other experience is more important than Stevie’s first slam, where he falls off a rooftop after unsuccessfully trying to ollie over it. The slam, rather than distance Stevie from the group, earns him respect from all the members, and he is finally welcomed. Though Stevie finds success outside of his private life, Hill never allows for the audience to bask in his protagonist’s newfound identity for too long. The film soon follows with a gut wrenching scene with Stevie returning home from a party, where he has his first sexual experience with a girl (Alexa Demie). Stevie, clearly under the influence, engages in another fight with Ian. The proceedings that occur after the fight are portrayed so quickly, yet the horrific nature of the scene, coupled with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ beautiful score, makes it one of the most unforgettable scenes this year. Hill contrasts the light, airy camaraderie between the skaters with the emotional weight that everyone carries in the film, from Stevie’s mom being tasked with worrying for her two sons, to Fuckshit and Ray’s friendship being tested by the former’s urge to pursue fun in the form of drinking and drugs over focusing on skating. The film understands that skateboarding is a vessel for its story, but never relies on it to be the singular story device throughout.

Conversely, skateboarding is a precious subject to be put on screen. Do you only selectively take from the best bits, such as the companionship shared between skaters from nights cruising down the streets and sharing alcohol at a house party? Or do you risk it all, showing the ugly side of skateboarding: the casual homophobia in shop talk, the unnecessary aggression, the primitive mentality of crowding around and encouraging when a fight starts? Hill knows that whatever he does with this subject, there will be opposing voices left and right. Instead, he doesn’t choose to ignore the intrinsic problems, opting to face them head on. A early scene in the film finds Ruben confronting Stevie after he thanks Ruben for selling him his board, exclaiming: “Don’t say thank you, people are gonna think you’re gay!” Stevie quietly acknowledges this, but when he thanks Ray later for bestowing him with a new shop deck, Ray replies: “Thank you? Nah, that’s not gay, that’s just common manners!” It’s in these brief exchanges that we get to understand that Mid90s, whilst trying to be as authentic and natural as possible as a coming of age tale, is also trying to draws back the curtain with the deeper problems in skateboarding. Ray is the conduit for most of the progressiveness in the film, when he bares it all emotionally in front of Stevie, revisiting his inner demons. Smith delivers his monologue in a gentle manner, explaining to Stevie why gratefulness is important to keep in mind despite dire circumstances. Moments like these give the film gravitas, setting up the heavy scenes later to hit even harder.

The film ends with a fisheye lens montage of the crew’s antics, an ode to the old VX videos such as Video Days and Goldfish. Everyone in the video is experiencing moments of bliss whilst hanging out, 4th Grade’s camera capturing lines and handshakes aplenty. Watching this scene might even inspire the legion of kids who wear Thrasher merchandise for sartorial purposes to finally get a board from their local shop.

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