Twenty-five years on from the titular mid-1990s moment, Jonah Hill’s directional debut offers a nostalgic portrayal of the atmosphere and popular culture of this time. The film follows thirteen-year old protagonist, Stevie (an impressive Sunny Suljic), as he becomes friends with a group of older misfit teens, who unite through their love of skateboarding. Following the traditional narrative arc of the coming-of-age tale, the film follows Stevie as he rides out the highs and lows of adolescence, and learns important life lessons along the way.
From the film’s opening scene, where Stevie is bullied and attacked by his older brother, Hill underlines how Stevie’s difficult home life leads him to constantly seek escape out in the Los Angeles urban environment, which offers a liberation from the stifling domestic mise-en-scene. One day when he is mooching around town, he spots a group of older teenage boys skating and joking around, and he develops an instant admiration-crush on them. As Stevie befriends and gets to know these boys, he becomes inculcated into the style, language, and music of 1990s skate culture, which Hill portrays as offering a crucial solace and community for the adolescent misfits, and socially marginalised in the city – from African-American Ray (a moving, nuanced performance by Na-Kel Smith), who is routinely harassed by the LAPD whenever he attempts to step foot in an affluent neighbourhood of the city, to Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), whose family is so deprived that he cannot afford to buy new socks. Indeed, a key realisation for Stevie throughout the film is that no matter how “cool” and unfazed people might seem, everyone has their own secrets and problems, and we each cope with these in different ways. For these boys, their coping mechanism is skateboarding.
From the film’s opening shot, which illustrates a number of skateboards placed haphazardly across the floor, to the final shot of the boys skating along the highway together to the extradiegetic song that declares, “This is dedicated to the ones I love,” the redemptive homosocial power of skateboarding is placed at the heart of this film. Indeed, this film centres on an exploration of the nature of ‘brofriend culture’ of adolescent male friendships, and the love of the art of skateboarding and the freedom it provides. In this regard, Hill’s film is in keeping with the tradition of skateboarding coming-of-age films, beginning with Larry Clark’s infamous dark portrayal of 1990s toxic masculinity in Kids (1995), to the far more emotionally-resonant, insightful recent film Skate Kitchen (2018), and the documentary Minding the Gap (2018). However, in opposition to these recent films, Mid90s’ episodic, loose plot means that the film ultimately fails to offer a coherent, in-depth and emotionally-resonant insight into the appeal of skate culture for the socially marginalised. Instead, Hill’s film feels more like an indulgent reminiscence of the popular culture landscape of this decade.
Mid90s is structured through a patchwork of quotidian scenes – from Stevie playing video games on the sofa at home, to him drinking milkshakes with the other boys on the steps of the local high school. Hill shot Mid90s on 16mm, which gives the film a 1990s home video aesthetic. In addition to this aesthetic, and its hip hop soundtrack, the film also explores the materiality of 1990s adolescent masculinity, as Stevie begins to construct his emerging young manhood through collecting a range of cultural signifiers of masculinity – including hip hop tape cassettes, weights, trainers, and baggy jeans, all of which he purchases and admires with wonder and excitement, as he attempts to emulate the style and behaviour of his older friends on the skateboarding scene.
With the encouragement of his new friends, Stevie racks up a series of adolescent “firsts” during the film – from a first kiss, to the first time travelling in someone’s car without a parent present. However, the film also depicts the more harmful side of “brofriend culture”, as Stevie experiences a number of more ‘negative’ first experiences – from going along to house parties with the older boys and taking drugs and getting drunk for the first time, to being seriously injured in a drink-driving accident when he naively allows himself to be driven home by a drunk friend along the LA freeway.
Overall, Mid90s offers an interesting, entertaining insight into the redemptive power of skateboarding – and the bro culture that surrounds it – to offer solace to adolescent male lives in crisis. However, Hill’s primary focus on providing a nostalgic portrayal of 1990s urban aesthetics, sensibilities, and popular culture means that the film ultimately misses an opportunity to offer an in-depth insight into the central role of homosocial communities in riding out the waves of emotional turmoil of adolescent experience.