Mid90s: Who You Wanna Be

You literally take some of the hardest hits of anyone I’ve ever met…You know you don’t gotta do that, right?” — Ray, Mid90s

Mid90s, follows a group of kids fidgeting in their skin, trying to find comfort, but never settling in. That’s a bold choice for a first-time filmmaker, but one that feels the most honest, because Mid90s isn’t a movie about who these kids become, but rather who they want to be.

The lead, Stevie (affectionately known as Sunburn), is the youngest and most impressionable of the bunch. His mission in life, like all 13 year-olds is to be cool to the cool kids. When we first meet Stevie, that cool kid is his older brother Ian. Whereas Stevie’s bedroom is a mess of cartoons and video games, his hard-nosed brother’s room has walls adorned with meticulously placed Wu-Tang posters and seemingly endless CD racks of now-classic boom-bap staples. He rocks two pierced ears and walks the streets in Jordan Vs. As much as Stevie despises his violent attacks and cold demeanor, he idolizes Ian.

Ian is a young hip-hop head, who dresses the part, and tries his best to act it. He spends most of the run time sporting a scowl that’s sometimes directed at his brother, often directed at his mother, but generally used to keep up appearances. We soon find that Ian is trying as hard to convince the world that he’s a tough guy as he is himself. In a pivotal scene, he ends up in a stand-off with one of Stevie’s new skateboarder friends. He slinks away from the confrontation exposed, in full view of a torn Stevie, who perhaps will never look at him the same again. Ian, it turns out isn’t as tough, when faced with someone in his weight class. But that might not be the extent of it. We find that Ian hides a lot of pain behind his anger. Perhaps his anger is something more personal, not meant for the world.

Along with the siblings we meet Ruben, a young man who loses his place in his friend group when Stevie shows up; Fourth Grade, an apparently dimwitted aspiring filmmaker; FuckShit a talented, but aimless skater; and Ray, the coolest, wisest, most ambitious, and (aside from Stevie), most daring skater of the group. Ray almost immediately usurps Ian as Stevie’s idol, and in many ways serves as the second lead of the film. He’s the leader of the group, not merely because of his skill and style as a skater, which is unmatched, but also his level-head and surprising warmth. Ray is perhaps the only non-adult character who isn’t putting on airs. Ray knows who he is and who/what he wants to be. His goal is to be a professional skater, and he as the skill and drive to achieve it. Ray’s focus is what makes him the coolest person in the movie. He’s never trying to fit in, or even standout, he just wants to skate.

After meeting Ray, Stevie becomes obsessed with impressing him and his friends, often in unnecessarily dangerous ways. The quote above is directed at Stevie, by Ray, who is there to remind him that the risks he takes are often uncalled for. The relationship between the two provides the tender heart at the center of Mid90s. Small moments, like a quiet scene where Ray gifts Stevie a new board, then assembles it for him, show a kindness in Ray that we don’t see from any other character aside from Stevie himself. What we Ray teaches Stevie is that you don’t have to it’s okay to just be yourself. Stevie is taught by other characters, either directly or inadvertently to shed his kind nature, but Ray is the one to remind him that there’s nothing wrong with common courtesy. Ray also serves as the moral backbone for the group at large. He advises FuckShit against giving drugs to young Stevie, cuts Stevie off when he’s drinking too much, and breaks up fights between friends. He’s there for his friends when they’re down, because he too carries sadness, but doesn’t wear it.

Mid90s will draw criticism for it’s plot, or lack thereof. The movie isn’t so much story as it is snapshot. Mid90s isn’t about the mid-90s, it’s just set there. The soundtrack is populated with classic hip-hop hits from the time, but those songs are more often than not, largely used as a sort of audio production design. It doesn’t serve as a time capsule of the era, but rather Hill’s memory of it. This may disappoint those watching the movie with expectations that it will cross off everything on their 90s checklist. No character ever bursts into a room with the horrific news of Tupac’s death or mentions their fears of Y2K. And the movie is better for it.

The 90s served as a pivotal and explosive time in skateboarding history, and this is a movie about skateboarding, after all. At the end of the movie, nothing is truly resolved — except any questions about the movie’s title — and that’s a smart decision. We never find out who these kids become, but we have a firm idea of who they want to be, and that’s all we need right now.