Mid90s is a promising debut for Jonah Hill

The actor-turned-director’s debut feature is well-observed, though thinly-sketched.

Na-Kel Smith and Olan Prenatt in Mid90s

“The hardest part about skateboarding is the concrete.” I saw that when I was clicking my way through skating subreddits after seeing Jonah Hill’s directorial debut Mid90s earlier this week. It is funny, but it bears a lot of weight as well. Skateboarding demands sacrifice in the form of blood and humility. The film’s tagline “fall. get back up” embodies that unmerciful try-hard attitude perfectly. The lo-fi aesthetic and grainy 16mm footage is elevated by compelling performances and prescient themes, but can also feel like a thinly drawn sketch.

The film follows Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a 13-year-old kid living in Los Angeles. His mother (Katherine Waterston) is a single parent and his brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) beats him — and the abuse really is presented as abuse, not just good ol’ sibling squabbles. In the very first shot, an empty corridor is suddenly flooded by Stevie’s tiny body slamming against the wall, followed by his brother’s. Stevie looks up to him even when he’s pummeling him from above. He sneaks into his room and runs his fingers across his clothes and Jordans. He even takes notes on his CD collection. Stevie’s dedication to improving his social ranking extends beyond his home. He falls into the skating crowd when he walks into a skate shop and sees a group of teens lounging around TV watching skate videos. Watching them skate in the back behind the store, he falls in love with their effortless swagger. They slide and grind, performing kickflips as the sun sets on a busy LA boulevard.

The group of misfits is comprised of four members. Ray, played by rapper and skater Na-kel Smith, is the swaying anchor of the group. Though he may be very skilled, his perseverance and ambition is what distinguishes him from the pack, the pack that is starting to slow him down and look bad. FuckShit (Olan Prenatt)  is as equally skilled as Ray, but thinks that trying hard is “corny”. Ruben (Gio Galicia) is the closer in age to Stevie and is his entry point into the group. But their bond quickly turns into a rivalry as Ruben becomes resentful of Stevie’s sudden rise to popularity within the group. Ruben is the parody of fragile masculinity. Early on in the film, he forbids Stevie from saying “thank you” under the pretense of it being “gay”.  Finally, Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) is the surrogate filmmaker of the group. A Spike Jonze type who dreams of making movies but who is consistently told he’s too dumb, he spends the entire film shooting their tricks and antics on his camcorder. Moreover, many hip-hop fans will be overjoyed to hear such carefully selected and placed tracks. In interviews, Hill said that he wrote specific songs into the film. The soundtrack does feel integrated into the film in a way that many don’t.

Despite an eclectic group of characters, Ray and Stevie are the only characters in the film that are given more in-depth psychologies. Indeed, Stevie’s brother and mother function as symbols of cruelty and absence retrospectively. But we are offered many private moments with Stevie. There are several montages of Stevie practicing tricks in his backyard, changing the posters in his room to reflect his newly acquired love of skateboarding culture, as well as several disturbing scenes of him self-harming. It’s rare to see a kid self-harm, especially a boy. These scenes inform his performative moments of self-harm when he’s out with his friends performing tough tricks and taking hits. It is in those scenes that we see how far he will go to be deemed cool. His scars and bruises are proof of his social capital. But the private moments of pain hint at a deeply troubled boy. Before stealing money from his mother to buy a skateboard, he scratches his leg with a brush, rubbing it against his skin so fast that it turns red. These raw scenes, though they don’t end up converging with the performative scenes of self-harm, do save the film from a more casual nostalgia porn film.

Indeed, Mid90s is similar to last year’s Lady Bird in that it doesn’t fall into nostalgia in the same way that many coming-of-age period pieces do. But depicting 90s youth culture inevitably means upsetting some moviegoers that might be irked by the incessant use of gay slurs and the n word and certainly, the treatment of young women still has a ways to go. The discussions about race in the film might seem a little too on-the-nose for a group of kids in the 90s, and can feel like too conscious of a choice on Jonah Hill’s part. No doubt showing the racism would’ve been a better decision than Ray talking about it. At times, it felt like it was merely skating around the issues.

Mid90s is an impressive debut from a promising director. Though it may feel underdeveloped in parts, it holds up as a moving snapshot of a subculture that we still look towards for models of gritty authenticity. Though Hill tries to make it clear that he doesn’t idealize everything about the skaters in the film, you can feel his affection for them in every grainy 4:3 frame. 

Mid90s is in theatres Friday, October 26. Watch the trailer here: