Growing up, it felt like every guy had their moment where they tried skateboarding at least once. Usually it was after playing some Tony Hawk Pro Skater game or maybe after watching the X-Games, but it was a phase seemingly everyone had. Granted, it often didn’t last very long and just resulted in a disused skateboard cluttering up your garage after you fell on your ass a number of times (or like me when you ripped open your knuckles when you turned it into a homemade luge with scars that you still have). It’s a fundamentally silly activity, but there’s an inherent appeal to it that usually can be boiled down to it just looking cool when you are a kid.
It’s that exact appeal that is at the heart of this movie and it’s look at skateboarding scene in mid-’90s Los Angeles. Stevie is a thirteen year old kid who at the start idolizes his rap loving older brother (who has a suspicious degree of great taste if I may say so myself, but then again considering his issues of The Source, he probably just buys whatever it tells him to), but quickly becomes drawn to a group of skateboarders. Their appeal is obvious to a kid like Stevie. They stand up to a shop owner who harasses them, do some neat tricks with their skateboards, and hang out cursing and shooting the shit in ways that a young teen would think of as cool. He quickly throws himself into the lifestyle, trading stuff to get his brother’s old board, practicing in his backyard, and hanging around the older teens watching and doing small favors for them.
He starts to become more intertwined with the group, graduating from almost a mascot to a friend as he spends his days with them. He has two mentors in the group, both talented, but one who a black teen who wants to use his skills to get out of his neighborhood and the other who is far more concerned with partying and wants to just coast off his parents’ money. Their influence pulls him in multiple directions balancing between his (mostly informed) niceness and the bad smoking, drinking, etc. habits that he starts to pick up. Tension also brews with the previous youngest member, the first person he bonded with who is jealous over the attention Stevie gets and from his concerned mom and protective brother who often resorts to beating the crap out of his younger brother.
The film is not going to win any awards for the originality of its coming of age plot and it’s a pretty standard modern example. Most of the appeal stems from its very specific look at a place and subculture. Say what you will about ’90s nostalgia, but it hasn’t been nearly burnt to the ground the way ’80s nostalgia has (and will continue to be until seemingly the end of time). The great soundtrack was made seemingly to appeal directly to me, filled largely with music of the time of various genres including plenty of rap and alternative music. They are supplemented by a score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor that is almost Philip Glass sounding at times and lends the film an almost natural documentary tone at times.
Speaking of the feel of the movie, it’s important to mention the most distinctive part of the film, the visuals. Mid90s is shot in the almost square aspect ratio of 4:3 on 16mm film. The visual style becomes a part of it and unlike other recent films whose style comes to define it, it quickly becomes something you don’t even notice. It also lends the film a kind of authenticity in looking like an independent title out of the era. It’s helped even more by the performances from largely amateur skateboarders who nevertheless turn in naturalistic performances. The three prominent actors, Sunny Suljic (who plays Stevie and is best known for The Killing of a Sacred Deer and God of War), Katherine Waterston (his mom of Inherent Vice), and the ever present Lucas Hedges (of Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) all turn in quality performances as well with Suljic especially able to really get across Stevie’s awkward, trying to fit nature as well as his palpable joy during those moments of acceptance.
All things considered, the film is pretty fair to the skateboarders even as it portrays them as exactly the kind of people, you’d expect them to be complete with each as a stock type. They do genuinely seem to care about one another and their skateboarding is born out of a genuine passion for the freedom it brings. I’ll admit that I was skeptical of the film for being Jonah Hill’s directorial debut. Not only did it look like a gimmicky, nostalgia-baiting first film and from an actor no less (since every actor wants to direct and going to a period when they were a kid is always an easy first idea), it’s from an actor whose work I have to put it charitably, been unimpressed with. Hill has delivered a promising debut which delivers a lived in world with an easy going charm to it.