At one point in Mid90s, Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a willful, warm preteen kid, chats up an older girl at a party. “You’re like at that age before guys become dicks,” she smiles, two barrettes clipping up her ‘90s bob. With shaggy hair and arctic blue eyes, Stevie actually seems to be at that liminal age when guys do become dicks, in the midst of a steep uphill climb from boyhood to adolescence where tenderness dies and competitive virility, bravado, and unruliness reign.
As raw as an early Wu-Tang Clan album, Mid90s charts Stevie’s growth from impressionable pipsqueak to tenacious rebel once he joins a band of teenage skateboarders. Written and directed by Jonah Hill in his behind-the-camera debut, the movie clearly endeavors to be a kind of Kids update (Harmony Korine even makes an unceremonious cameo as random-man-zipping-up-his-pants), harnessing the organic jargon and uncontrived ennui of first-time teen actors. Yet Hill’s take on coming of age is nowhere near as prurient or sinister as Korine’s, and its portrayal of carefree teen mavericks recalls something more like Andrea Arnold’s American Honey or Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen.
But unlike those films, Mid90s is a period piece—underscored by its title, no less—and Hill channels ‘90s male defiance with pitch perfect precision. In Stevie’s world, homophobia and disrespect of women are everyday and expected, and toughness is proven through bloody heads and an unwavering contempt for authority. Girls are bitches to be fucked; guys are derided as homophobic slurs when they’re nervous or unsure. During this time (and, to a growing extent, again today), male skate culture provided an aesthetic, a patois, an attitude—an aspirational way of life for aimless boys like Stevie. In this way, Mid90s is a very male movie, crudely realistic in its depiction of ‘90s dudeliness and skater boy mood.
When we meet Stevie, he’s the archetypal little brother, wearing a Street Fighter II shirt and trespassing into his big bro Ian’s (Lucas Hedges) room to tug on his barbells and take note of his CD collection. At 18, Ian is muscly and ear-pierced and already in “dick” territory, at least to Stevie (whom he beats black and blue) and their preoccupied young mom (Katherine Waterston). “Fuck mom,” Stevie says at one point while playing video games with Ian in a desperate effort to impress him. Back in his own room, he hungrily peruses a skateboarding magazine aptly called Big Brother.
Snubbed by Ian, Stevie spots a crew of skater punks romping outside a store one day and is drawn to their rambunctious spirit like a magnet. He starts showing up at the Los Angeles skate shop where they post up, joining the guys as they crack jokes, watch skate videos, and trade raunchy would-you-rathers. He may not know how to puff a cigarette properly or even do an ollie, but as he tags along with the group on their skating and party outings, Stevie’s happy to play the part of gung-ho group tag-along. He particularly admires the group ringleader Ray (Na-kel Smith), a black skater with pro-level talent who quickly replaces Ian as Stevie’s idol.
As we spend more time with the group, pent-up tensions come into focus. Stevie’s incipient status in the group causes friction between him and Ruben (Gio Galacia), the youngest of the crew who introduces himself to Stevie by telling him never to say “thank you” because expressing gratitude is “gay.” Tension also boils between Ray and the group jokester nicknamed Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), who’s just as talented a skater but has given up on their collective skate dream (to go pro) in favor of partying and chasing girls.
Differences in class and upbringing trigger and exacerbate these agitations, and Hill exposes these issues with deliberately subtle clues: a mention of one guy’s dad working at the DMV; Fuckshit dealing out stimulants he got from a fancy psychiatrist his parents made him see. Not until the end does Hill reveal what Stevie’s already begun to suspect: despite their blithe veneer, each of the guys is struggling with something.
Hill is clearly working within a formula, here, with familiar coming of age beats. But he does make a few choices that help keep it fresh and alive. The movie’s shot on grainy 16mm film with a 4:3 aspect ratio, to make it look more like a skate video. Songs from The Smiths and Pixies pulse over a few montages. During one especially climactic scene, Hill cuts the audio altogether, creating a beautifully understated sense of drama.
Clocking in at under 90 minutes, the movie can feel a bit thin and tropey. But it’s still a strong as hell debut for Hill, who succeeds in elevating it to something more: a portrait that’s real, evocative, and free from moralizing.