Mid90s, a coming of age story about a kid with an unhappy home life who becomes friends with some older skateboarders, feels like a movie that could have been made during the title time period. Comic actor Jonah Hill’s first effort as a director (he also wrote and produced) reproduces that era not just in terms of the way the kids act, but stylistically as well. Mid90s feels like a low budget indie from the mid ‘90s. For the most part, that aesthetic is effective for this story, capturing the anything goes mentality of their skateboarding habits and the anarchy of having no responsible authority figures. The formlessness of the overall narrative works for it, but it is a bit purposeless and gets rather repetitive at times. Still, it is a pretty interesting look at a bunch of lost boys forming a bond before adulthood screws everything up.
The protagonist is Stevie, a lonely kid (they never say his age, though the actor playing him, Sunny Suljic, is 13) who lives with his angry, violent older brother and largely absent mother. One day, he sees some older kids (probably around his brother’s age) skateboarding in front of a shop and talking back to its owner. He thinks they seem cool so, despite never having skated, he starts going to the local skate shop and they end up letting him skate with them. The bulk of the film just watches them hang out, seeing the impact that has on Stevie.
Mid90s (79 minutes without the end credits) succeeds because Hill allows his (mostly non-professional) cast to just be. The best moments are the ones where Stevie and his new friends hang out. The more story heavy scenes involving Stevie’s family are not as intriguing, though Hill smartly allows a lot of that part of the story to be implied. We learn enough about his mom and brother to understand his relationships with them, but what really matters is what draws him to these older kids and what he learns about himself from spending time with them.
The scenes with the skaters have a fly-on-the-wall, improvisational feel to them. Hill does not force them to act; his camera observes as they interact with each other. They are all unique, confused, people. The screenplay lets their personalities out gradually. Na-Kel Smith is Ray, the leader of the group, who aspires to be a professional skateboarder. Olan Prenatt is his best friend, whose name cannot be said in polite company. He only wants to look cool and party. Then there is Ryder McLaughlin as Fourth Grade. He wants to be a filmmaker, but is not very smart. Last is Ruben, played by Gio Galicia, who is the closest to Stevie in age. He is stuck between childhood and adulthood and seems quite insecure about it. All of them, either intentionally or unintentionally, influence Stevie’s journey.
Mid90s is Jonah Hill’s directorial debut and his first credit as a screenwriter. He has a delicate and patient touch with the material. It is clear it is personal for him in one way or another. He gives his film a realistic, even documentary-like feel. In the end, I suppose I wanted a little more substance. But it is a well-made, enjoyable slice of life drama that does not try for deep messages. Hill is interested in showing certain kinds of kids in a certain time, which is plenty compelling on its own.
3½ out of 5
Sunny Suljic as Stevie
Na-Kel Smith as Ray
Olan Prenatt as F*******
Gio Galicia as Ruben
Ryder McLaughlin as Fourth Grade
Lucas Hedges as Ian
Katherine Waterston as Dabney
Written and Directed by Jonah Hill