When Stevie (Sunny Suljic) rides his skateboard down a hill, he’s the only one in his new group of friends that puts his foot down as a brake when he goes too fast. Everyone else flies down the street, swerving too close to cars, but Stevie stays right in the lines, scratching his shoes along the pavement to slow down. mid90s – Jonah Hill’s directing and solo writing debut – mostly stays in the lines as well, preferring to skid to a stop rather than make a bold choice.
Unknowingly, Stevie is a young boy desperate for a male presence in his life to help direct him. mid90s opens with Stevie digging through the room of his wannabe gangster brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). He forages through CDs, clothes, and magazines that have helped Ian define himself. Ian, however, returns Stevie’s curiosity and care with a flurry of punches and fighting matches. Their single mother Dabney (played by an unbelievably underused Katherine Waterson) doesn’t understand why her youngest is starting to pull away from her.
Stevie finds the camaraderie he’s looking for with a group of older L.A. skater kids: the charismatic leader Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), the ambitious Ray (Na-kel Smith), the hopeful filmmaker Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), and the former young addition to the group Ruben (Gio Galicia). Stevie soon becomes one of the skater group – much to the chagrin of his family – who may or may not be the influence Stevie needs in his life.
Besides placing the film in the world of skate culture, this type of destructive adolescent discovery isn’t anything new. While Hill does seems quite comfortable behind the camera, his screenplay is devoid of any real stakes. At one point, Fuckshit points that “trying too hard is corny,” and at times, it feels like Hill almost believes this. Like Fuckshit, mid90s seems without direction, sort of listless and breezing through the story. It isn’t until the very end that Hill decides that he should insert some dramatic heft, and at that point, it’s far too forced to work convincingly.
Hill’s recreation of time and place is nicely handled, and never feels overdone. Stevie wears Rocko’s Modern Life shirts, or hears Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” at a Benihana restaurant, but the nostalgia never overwhelms the film.
Much has also been made of Hill’s use of language here, especially using homophobic slurs liberally throughout his script. While it is jarring in usage, Hill makes it clear this is an unfortunate sign of the times and not a carelessly added choice. More uncomfortable, however, is one party sequence, which almost plays like the polar opposite of Eighth Grade’s backseat truth-or-dare game. In this case, mid90s uses (very) underage sexual exploits as something to congratulate and boast about, not a moment that shouldn’t be taken as lightly as it is.
Hill’s aspect 4:3 ratio is like chunky TVs and VHS tapes from Blockbuster, and the all too prevalent fish-eyed lens of the 90s. Hill seems to have a natural talent with directing (see also Danny Brown’s “Ain’t It Funny” video) and the sun-drenched L.A. of this period feels like Hill pulled it straight from his memories. But without a strong story to shoot, mid90s is compelling to look at, but too passive for its own good.
What’s alo disappointing is how Hill uses his excellent cast. The skater kids are all natural and engaging in a way that we understand Stevie’s excitement about being pulled into their ranks, yet Prenatt and Smith and their friendship overwhelm the other three. Smith especially is great, but as the moral compass of the story, he can at times become too hokey delivering exactly the advice that Stevie needs at any given time. When Hill doesn’t overwrite his scenes and shows the importance of the Stevie-Ray relationship without words – such as a solo skating trip, or the film’s finest scene, when Ray crafts a board specifically for Stevie – Hill, Smith, and Suljic shine.
It’s Stevie’s family that gets the short end of the stick once Stevie becomes enraptured in the world of skating. Hedges’ Ian has also struggled with growing up without any sort of mentor, but he buries his emotions and rarely responds without violence or rage. Ian is impossible for Stevie to decipher, therefore mid90s also makes him equally inaccessible. Even worse is Waterson as Dabney, who exists solely to present the failures of Stevie’s choices. While it’s hinted that Dabney has changed greatly and has an active love life, there’s nothing for Waterson to do besides watch in awe as her son is pulled away from her.
mid90s is obviously a story that Hill feels close to and needed to tell, and as a story of the importance of the relationships that form who we become, Hill thrives. But mid90s seeming indifference and ease at the screenplay stage don’t do Hill’s story justice, as Hill skates by one mood and style rather than substance.