I must have been 17 or 18 at the time, and my younger cousin was about 13. I gave him my World Industries Wet Willy skateboard because to be totally honest, I sucked at skateboarding. From there he ran with it and fell in love with the sport. We would watch Shorty’s, Zero, Toy Machine, and Birdhouse videos on loop, to name a few. I would take him to our local community college, by trolley of course, to try to land some tricks, he failed most of the time, but still it was fun just to go and mess around. He was trying to find a niche or a tribe for himself, unfortunately he ended up giving up skateboarding and fell in with some other people and at 18 he was tragically killed. I will never forget those years we spent together, and it’s unfortunate that he chose the wrong group. Being young and free, we bonded over skateboarding and became super close. Skateboarding is a rite of passage for a lot of people who can’t seem to fit in anywhere else. The film Mid90s accurately captured the adolescent sentiment that many people grow up with, the feeling that parents don’t understand our feelings, and the undeniable urge to seek out fun and excitement on our own terms.
Jonah Hill makes his directorial debut and spent years working on making this film historically accurate in every way. He went straight to skateboard companies like Chocolate and Girl for old school 90’s gear and decks, and it worked. I felt nostalgic watching it the whole time. It also helps that the film was shot on Super 16 mm, which adds that gritty texture to the film. The digital photo-shopped feeling of recent movies isn’t felt here.
The film centers around Stevie (Sunny Suljic) or “Sunburn” as they call him, who is a regular lower-class kid living in Los Angeles with his single mom (Katherine Waterson) and older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). He happens into a skate shop and ends up bonding with all the guys, they give him a skateboard and he becomes part of their crew. There is an instant bond there for him and he is eager to fit in.
He drinks forties with ease and takes puffs of marijuana like a seasoned pro, but the reality is that he is not an expert, he is just pretending to be one. I guess like most young people are, when they are trying to fit in and be accepted by their peers. It would be mortifying to ever admit that you never smoked weed or cigarettes, or that you never even tasted beer. Stuff like that could get you ousted from a group, so Stevie does what every normal kid does, he just pretends he knows what he’s doing and feels like he is part of something. He smiles shyly when he knows he got it right with them.
New actor and real life professional Supreme skater, Na-Kel Smith plays Ray, who appears to be the voice of reason in the group. He wants more to life than just smoking and drinking, he wants to be a professional skater. He watches over Stevie and we can feel that he wants to make good decisions, but doesn’t always know how. He is the soul of the film, and one to watch.
Mid90s is reminiscent of Larry Clark and Harmony Korine’s 1995 classic Kids, and I am sure Hill took cues from it. The rawness that we felt in Kids, can be seen in this film as well, except it is not at the same level, where the camera was in the faces of teenagers making out and bashing other guys heads into the pavement and hearing the skull crush. I used to have to turn my head every time that scene came on. But a similar sentiment is felt in this film.
The skaters are chased by cops, disrespected by their parents, and even each other. When one of the other kids Ruben (Gio Galicia), starts to notice that Sunburn is being favored by the older skaters, he picks a fight with him, and Stevie gives him back equal hard punches.
At home Stevie must contend with his older brother, who is the opposite of a skater, but also a figure of the 90’s. Dressed in Polo and baggy jeans and stud earrings to match, he was most likely someone influenced by the rap culture of the time. He seems angry and pissed off, they are two boys without a father figure in their life, and Ian proceeds to constantly beat the living hell out of his younger brother. Hedges is impressive in this role of the bitter older brother, the one who had to watch guys go in and out of his mother’s bedroom growing up, while Stevie did not. I think we might be seeing a possible Oscar nomination for him in this role, if anything he will get a lot of praise for it.
Hill stepped it up and did a remarkable job at directing his first movie. I think people will be impressed that he didn’t imbue his film with Superbad raunchy teenage jokes or his sarcastic humor. Instead this movie felt real and I think it will strike a chord with a lot of people. Especially those like myself who grew up in the era where iPhones and Google didn’t exist. We figured things out on our own and we didn’t stare at phone screens, and these kids do the same with their life. They are just trying to make sense of it all and find their place in the world. All while hanging out with friends and listening to good music; and isn’t that what ever teenager is always trying to do.