Hill’s ‘Mid90s’ avoids nostalgia and embraces timeless themes
Written and directed by: Jonah Hill
Starring: Sunny Suljic, Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Ryder McLaughlin, Gio Galicia, Katherine Waterston, and Lucas Hedges
“Mid90s” – Looking back at 1995, millions of Americans flocked to see “Braveheart” and “Toy Story” in theatres, listened to TLC’s “Waterfalls” on the radio, watched “ER”, “Seinfeld” and “Friends” on television, were fascinated by the O.J. Simpson trial, and loaded Windows95 on their personal computers. Even though these cultural phenomenons (and many more) captured the public’s attention 23 years ago, they do not appear in writer/director Jonah Hill’s movie “Mid90s”, about a group of skateboarding kids in Los Angeles.
This is by design.
During a Sept. 2018 interview, Hill said, “The two rules were no skate-porn and no nostalgia-porn,” and added, “(I) really wanted to protect this beautiful subculture that’s always been misdirected on-screen.”
In short, the film’s title is much less important. His creation is more timeless, as he said, “It’s the story about forming a group of friends outside your house. A family outside your house, when it’s you and your friends against the world.”
For 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic), he does not really have a social outlet in his present. His mom Dabney (Katherine Waterston) is pleasant and supportive, but her time is limited as a single parent. Stevie’s older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) regularly beats on him and offers zero comfort.
When Stevie suddenly becomes friends with Ruben (Gio Galicia), Ray (Na-kel Smith), Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), and F*cksh*t (Olan Prenatt), his universe and joy increases exponentially.
(Yes, in case you were wondering, Fourth Grade and F*cksh*t are the boys’ nicknames, but this critic will not reveal the reasons for these specific oddball designations.)
Like many groups, each individual falls into a natural role, and this collection of five skateboarders is no different. Ray is the unofficial leader. F*cksh*t - with long, blonde, curly locks - carries massive charisma. Fourth Grade and Ruben enjoy mutual acceptance from the others, and Stevie is the smallest and newest entry to this Southern California skateboarding-faction.
Other than Dabney, none of their parents are anywhere to be found, so the kids form a “Stand by Me” (1986) quintet, but without a stated goal in their sunshine and concrete environment.
Unfortunately, Dabney’s and Ian’s story arcs become stuck in cinematic cul-de-sacs, but the boys’ road is Hill's chosen focus.
Rather than these teens reaching for brass rings, they are comfortable sitting, strolling and riding within their current spaces, which are not dangerous, but are certainly void of wide bike lanes and lush suburban lawns. The local skateboard shop is home base, where they launch into a typical day of wandering outside, finding smooth asphalt or a set of stairs and setting up temporary camp to kill time and connect through laughs, teases and yes, support. In other words, boy stuff. To any kid lacking direction and without answers at home, finding a group of friends who accept you without compromises is an abundance of dreams.
To the unwanted, acceptance is bliss.
Even better if your new friends are older and dive into vices that one has only seen on TV, but these encounters also increase the possibilities of danger.
Hill’s picture organically explores these ideas, but - seemingly - without distinct plot points that move the narrative. Looking back, it is difficult to piece together the milestones in Stevie’s journey, as “Mid90s” feels like a mass collection of random moments. Taken as a whole, however, one can see Stevie’s worldview gradually expanding.
Suljic successfully delivers a soulful performance and easily communicates Stevie’s wide assortment of relief, glee, struggles, and frustrations. Even with new teen-allies, Stevie’s habits of self-loathing have not vanished, and Hill captures these moments in heartbreaking and visceral ways.
Prenatt stands out too, and he is the film’s breakout star. The camera loves Prenatt. He carries an easy-breezy and accessible vibe, and F*cksh*t may not be responsible, but his warm presence and “That was dope”-response to just about any event are preciously coveted and welcomed.
Hill’s “Mid90s” is a welcome feature film debut, but don’t rush to see it for wild skateboard tricks. It is not that movie, and although it plays in uneven, unfocused territory, “Mid90s” successfully lives within its nomadic tones and conveys the universal churn of one’s teenage years within an 84-minute runtime.
Hey, that is dope.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.