Skateboarding has had its fair share of culture vultures over the years. As such, it's not surprising that Hollywood has come knocking several times and released tragic fare like Thrashin' and and Gleaming the Cube which felt like desperate attempts by executives and creatives who had no actual interest in skateboarding other than to profit off its rise in popularity.
When the trailer for Jonah Hilly's directorial debut, Mid90s, released in July, there was renewed optimism that the Academy Award-nominated actor would actually do the sport/subculture justice due to his own own personal experiences hanging around Los Angeles skate shop, Hot Rod, every day for six years, and recognizing that "Skateboarding [has] always been put on screen as a joke or an ’80s ‘cowabunga’ kind of trope."
Matt Solomon, a manager at Hot Rod, noted of Hill's time at the skate shop, "Our very first dollar that somebody spent at The Rod was from Jonah and he signed it. He was like this three-feet tall, four-feet wide little kid with a fro and he signed it ‘Jonah the Jew.’ We were stoked and hung it on the wall.”
Mid90s is clearly a personal film for Hill. It's not a beat-for-beat replica of his upbringing. Nor is it simply a love letter to a time in many young male's lives when it feels like hell when you're going through it, but like absolute heaven when you look back at it through an adult lens. Rather, it's an unflinching look at what brings people together, what solidifies that bond, and what threatens to derail it all.
Here are our five biggest takeaways from Mid90s.
There's actually skateboarding
Although the film's lead, Sunny Suljic (Stevie), has had a few Hollywood credits (most notably voicing Atreus in the video game God of War), and Academy Award nominated, Lucas Hedges, plays his brother, Hill's decision to cast skateboarders Na-Kel Smith (Ray), Olan Prenatt (Fuckshit), Gio Galicia (Reuben), and Ryder McLaughlin (Fourth Grade) as Stevie's friends was a risk that really paid off.
Whereas Larry Clark's Kids revolved around skate culture in Washington Square Park in New York City, the only actual rolling we got was when Justin Pierce's character bumped into someone and triggered a vicious assault with skateboards as the prominent blunt instruments.
In Mid90s, there is actual skateboarding, and it's not just filler. We feel the pain of each slam. Stevie's decision to try a gap feels as angst-ridden as watching a baby Evil Knievel try the Snake River jump, and scenes of excess involving drinking, drugs, and police chases all come with skateboarding as the backdrop.
In a quieter moment, we watch Na-Kel Smith's character, Ray, put together a new board for Stevie. It's one long shot as Hill leans into the minutia; grip tape is peeled, trimmed, holes are punched, and trucks and wheels are drilled into the board. It easily could have been a two-second clip. But Hill clearly wanted to show the audience how special a moment this was for Stevie. It doesn't matter if 90 percent of the audience has never skated a day in their live. Everyone can identify with getting something they've been waiting their whole life to receive.
The emotion is earned and nuanced
There are several key moments which occur in the film that are particularly moving, but don't feel melodramatic. The relationship between Stevie and his brother, Ian, is as toxic as any you've seen on film in recent years. They seemingly have much in common, but neither can bridge the gap.
Early in the film, Stevie ventures into Ian's room. He's enamored with rap from the era like Chubb Rock, and cassette tapes from radio shows like Stretch & Bobbito. While at first it seems like a young kid trying to get cooler through osmosis, it's revealed that it was a way of finding the perfect birthday present for his brother. Ian receives the gift with complete disinterest. But by the end of the film, there's a glimmer of hope for the brothers through the smallest gesture of kindness.
Another key scene involves Stevie and Ray. Smith delivers a monologue rich in exposition which is usually a big no-no to those who think that story should always be seen, not heard. Hill eschews this for something more akin to the poignant exchanges between Robin Williams', Sean, and Matt Damon's, Will, in Good Will Hunting. We don't need flashbacks. We're happy to stay in the moment and let Ray speak freely about how the grass isn't always greener on the other side.
Films are often chided when characters make choices that the filmmaker/screenwriter want them to make. But the audience is smart, and can pick up when things are happening just to push the story along. Stevie, Ray, Fuckshit, Fourth Grade, and Ruben do and say things that are meant to harm and heal. That's what occurs in real friendships.
Mikey Alfred, the 23-year-old founder of the skate brand Illegal Civilization, with whom many of the aforementioned skaters are affiliated with, has said of the Mid90s characters and inevitable comparison to Kids, "I just grew up loving film, and when I saw Kids, I was already in ninth grade. I didn’t like it. I remember watching it and thinking this is not how skaters are, in my life at least. What they didn’t get right is that every single skateboarder is multi-talented. I’ve never met a skateboarder who can only skate. They’re all really smart, they’re all really intellectual, they’re all really self-reflective. Skating is something you do alone, so you have a lot of time to think and figure out who you are. I haven’t met that many insecure skateboarders, they’re pretty confident, because they spend so much time in their own head. And that’s something that Kids didn’t capture at all.”
It feels period correct
As the title suggests, Mid90s is set in 1995. And while costume designer, Heidi Bivens, certainly does a masterful job outfitting the ensemble cast in pieces from the era like Street Fighter and D.A.R.E. T-shirts and baggie jeans, it was Hill's decision to use Super 16 in the squared-off Academy aspect ratio which really transports the viewer back to the Clinton era.
While this could all be construed as "movie magic," Hill also employed a "no cell phone" policy on set. It would be easy to interpret this as a first-time-director looking to gain control, but instead, he wanted his actors to lean into a technology-less experience as a means of growing closer as a cast.
It's easy to forget just how reliant we've become on cell phones as a way of quieting our senses when we're feeling emotional. In Mid90s, it's the boredom — and subsequent meaningless conversations — which help build character. In contrast, when Stevie and his brother are playing PlayStation, they seem to be dulled by it. The sedative effect further enhances a divide we know exists between the brothers.
The music is terrific
Much in the same way that music almost seemed like a main character in Edgar Wright's inventive heist film, Baby Driver, so too does Mid90s place an added importance on the usage of sound as an extension of what is tangibly happening on screen. The music doesn't exist on top of the action, it plays out more voyeuristic as if we the audience are granted access to intimate moments where songs from The Pharcyde, GZA, The Smiths, and Pixies are playing on boomboxes in the background.
Add to that an inventive score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — who worked on notable films like The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl in the past — and Mid90s strays aways from the guitar stabs and orchestral strings in favor of original pieces of music which is particularly gratifying in a scene where Stevie proves just how crazy he is to his friends.
After coming out of the theater, I was reminded of the quote from Gordie in Stand by Me, "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”
Whereas the boys in that film were on a literal journey to discover a dead body, the kids in Mid90s are on a path of self-discovery. When you're that age, you're easily malleable into what you say and do. As such, you can make bad decisions and very quickly learn from your mistakes. Whereas when you're a teenager and young adult, problematic behavior becomes more habitual.
The heroes in Mid90s are definitely flawed, yet their actions ring true (especially for those who came of age during that time period). At the end of the film, Hill suggests optimists for the boys and their friendship. But you could also easily consider that this was the last time they all ever hung out. It's not a pessimistic viewpoint. Rather, Stevie, Ray, Fuckshit, Reuben, and Fourth Grade got everything they needed from one another.
Mid90s releases October 19 in the United States.