Mid90s has been something of a polygraph test for its first time director, Jonah Hill. The skateboarding world, ever critical of those who exploit it (particularly on financial grounds) has waited patiently to find out whether Hill is cashing in on a fashionable culture, or a genuine insider. The results would suggest Hill was indeed part of that revered era in skateboarding history, and it makes sense – why risk your debut on a film you might get butchered by your target audience on?
California, mid 1990s is the time and place in question, when skateboarding bounced back from social and cultural obscurity to become one of the most popular sports in the world. Characterised by the sun drenched, carefree meanderings of the American youth in a pre-mobile phone, pre-internet bubble of freedom – and that’s exactly what is on offer here, a brief insight (1hr 25m) into such a world.
The characters within the main cast are representatives of the various choices that one can follow in life. Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is an impressionable 13 year old who starts hanging around his local skate shop long enough to be accepted into their community. New to the sport and the adolescent world, he is a canvas for various personalities to paint their ideas on and see what looks best on him. Naive enough to believe what anyone older than him says, Stevie is raised by a single mother who led a wild youth, alongside his older brother whom he struggles to relate with.
Suljic is excellent, a young man whose only major credit prior was in Jorgos Lakinthomos’ lauded The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Hill hand picked him, not only for his acting skills but also for his role within the skateboarding world. Aside from Suljic, Na-Kel Smith, who plays driven and disciplined local skateboarder Ray is probably the standout performer. While the rest of the cast are entertaining and genuinely more than 90s fashion mannequins, Smith is arguably the only other fully fleshed out character and has probably considered much of his character’s heavy dialogue himself at some point, being a professional skateboarder prior to this acting foray.
The story itself doesn’t have a particularly strong narrative, embracing standard coming-of-age themes like brotherhood (blood and otherwise), race, rites of passage, and rebellion over the course of a summer in Los Angeles. Hill has been on record stating he was trying to capture the style and feeling of the era more than anything, and that seems to ring true. As someone who grew up skating, a lot of the film’s dialogue is as true to adolescent skateboard conversation as could be. Visually, skateboarding has never as truthfully been captured in cinema as it has here. Seedy, harsh and unrelenting. Hill has achieved this, but not without sacrifice. For every truth he has kept in it seems there is a cliche to balance it out, for commercial appeal of course.
Mid90s comes to the world at an interesting time. In complete contrast to the squeaky clean and controversial Olympic image that the world is going to have to adjust itself to, the world’s nations are currently putting together their 2020 Tokyo entrants and trying to sanitise the sport. Something Mid90s, awash with drugs, alcohol and law-breaking evidently has no interest in.
It would seem that Jonah Hill has come full circle. From making his major role debut in teen coming of age classic Superbad, to helming a very respectable coming of age debut of his own.