“I think it’s really dope that times are changing,” a grinning Jonah Hill said in an interview with the hosts of New York City-based radio show The Breakfast Club. In lieu of introducing himself, the 34-year-old actor-turned-director launched into a monologue about how exciting it is that counter-culture-centred media outlets are finally featuring mainstream celebrities.
After becoming a household name through now-iconic films such as Superbad (2007), 21 Jump Street (2012), and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), it is hard to imagine that Hill was ever a rough and tumble skate-rat like the kind depicted in his directorial debut Mid90s. The film follows Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a 13-year-old boy from an unstable home in Los Angeles who finds solace and brotherhood in a band of teenagers at the local skate shop. As Stevie slowly becomes integrated into their tight-knit circle, he falls in love with skateboarding and the subculture’s debauchery.
As any skate film must, Mid90s makes doing drugs and breaking the law look cool. The more poignant scenes of mischief, however, manage to evoke both nostalgia and concern, in large part due to Stevie’s young age. Suljic, born in 2005, looks comically small next to the teenage boys he admires. The scenes in which he is pictured holding a forty of liquor that is almost as large as his skinny torso are at once funny and heartbreaking.
Though the film deals with themes of domestic abuse, race, and poverty, it falls short of providing any sort of impactful commentary on these issues. At times, it seems like Hill may fallen into the trap of equating actual marginalization with the feeling of being an outcast. One of the more touching scenes in the film finds the group’s leader, Ray (Na-Kel Smith) consoling Stevie after he has a violent altercation with his older brother (Lucas Hedges). To make him feel less alone, Ray reveals to Stevie the troubled home lives of the rest of the characters, as if to imply that their shared struggles brought them together.
Although perhaps lacking in imagination, and, at times, tact, Mid90s still manages to be captivating in a sentimental sort of way. Underscored by an original soundtrack written in part by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, the film meets its gnarly skate footage quota, adding to its authenticity. Hill cast pro skateboarders Olan Prenatt, Ryder McLaughlin, Na-Kel Smith and Gio Galicia to play the group of friends who take Stevie under their wing, and the entire ensemble delivers compelling performances on and off their boards. Suljic, easily one of the more charming child actors of our time, delivered an endearing and emotional performance well beyond his years.
Along with 2017’s Lady Bird, Mid90s provides compelling evidence that, contrary to popular belief, the sub-genre of movies about teenagers doing nothing of substance has yet to be exhausted. The day-to-day misadventures of boys coming-of-age are plentiful, but remain, for whatever reason, unexpectedly moving.
Perhaps, it’s because there were so few female characters of significance, but, unlike with Lady Bird, or even 2013’s Palo Alto, the bittersweet depictions of adolescence didn’t make me reminisce about my own teenage escapades. Instead, they reminded me of my younger brother. He’s a few years older than Stevie and has never, to my knowledge, stepped foot on a skateboard. However, I’ve watched from a distance as he’s navigated young adulthood in similarly calamitous and idiotic ways. At times, I wanted to strangle Stevie, but mostly I just wanted to look after him.
Mid90s was, by no means, a groundbreaking film. At its core, the moral of the story is simply that adolescence always has and always will be fun and painful and confusing. It’s a shallow message, but, for what it’s worth, a true one.