When you’re a kid, becoming a part of something is often the most important thing in your life, especially when the social constructs that most of us take for granted—family, community and school friends—fail us for whatever reasons. For 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic), being alone in this world is an accepted fate. His well-meaning mother (Katherine Waterston) is frequently absent, and his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) is prone to violence, just generally beating the crap out of little Stevie.
This is the world of Mid90s, the impressive writing/directing debut of actor Jonah Hill, who provides us with essentially his view of Los Angeles circa the 1990s, when he became friends with a group of skateboarders (he himself was not good at it) who became a makeshift family who looked out for and protected each other while also having fun and getting into low-grade mischief. In the summer featured in the movie, Stevie stumbles into the Motor Avenue skate shop after befriending one of the kids who hangs out there, trading stories, bragging about fooling around with girls they likely never fooled around with, and making fun of each other in ways that sounds like bullying but actually binds them as a pack of morons (said with affection) who have each others backs.
Rather than trying to find actors and then teaching them how to skate, Hill opted to audition skaters to play these roles and teach them how to act. Na-kel Smith plays Ray, the slightly older leader of the group; Olan Prenatt is Fuckshit, who is the resident clown of the group; high-profile skater Ryder McLaughlin plays Fourth Grade, who is the designated chronicler of the group with his videocamera; and Gio Galicia is Ruben, who brings Stevie into the group, if only to not be the lowest rung in this particular animal kingdom for a time. If bad language, homophobic attitudes and toxic masculinity bother you, give Mid90s a chance anyway. The kids use certain words and possess certain attitudes about what it means to be a man as if they’re trying them on for size. It’s part of a uniform they’re wearing because they think it’s somehow required of them, and to not paint them in this way would be to disrespect the truth of their lives and the era.
Stevie takes on skating challenges that are far beyond his abilities and he gets hurt in the process, which only makes him look like a badass to the group, which does not sit well with Ruben. In his desperation to fit in, Stevie drinks, takes drugs and even fools around with a girl, all to impress his friends and not look scared of any challenge placed before him.
The film acknowledges that the era was a time when companies would visit skate parks, scouting for the best skaters to potentially sponsor, a practice that broke up crews and friendships. To further the overall atmosphere of Mid90s, Hill opted to shoot on Super 16mm with a 4:3 aspect ratio, making it look like a slightly more polished version of what Fourth Grade is filming. The resulting effect takes a little while to get used to, but the impact is undeniable and goes a long way toward establishing the period, especially when combined with a note-perfect hip-hop and punk soundtrack.
Hill’s vision for his work is so undeniably strong and assured that the blending of all of his decisions makes for a wonderfully immersive experience, for better or worse, depending on your memories of the period. The film is scrappy, rough around the edges but still quite a moving journey through the lives of these damaged kids, who are their own brand of survivors, and I’m genuinely curious where Hill takes us with his next film.