Written and directed by Jonah Hill
Starring Sunny Suljic, Na-kel Smith, Lucas Hedges, and Katherine Waterston
Running time: 1 hour 24 minutes
MPAA rating: R
by Jaime Davis, The Fixer
At the opening of Mid90s, the main character, Stevie, who I may or may not refer to in the rest of this review as Lil Stevie, is at the age (13ish) when many of us wake to how fucked our families are. It’s part of puberty, right? We start to see the signs and begin testing the waters a bit, acting out, until we’re full-on fuck it, prioritizing our friends over everything else. I think there’s a tendency at this age to see our friends as the ones with all the answers - the ones helping us figure out who we are or want to be.
It’s pretty much this way for Lil Stevie (a sweet Sunny Suljic). Because at the beginning of Mid90s he’s getting the ever loving shit kicked out of him by his older brother. And it looks rough. We’re not talking about congenial sibling shoves or light elbow punches because Stevie drank all the milk. Nah. It’s full-on domestic abuse. He’s punched in the face, head slammed onto the floor with a gut-wrenching thud. A few minutes later the older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges, all white boy hard in this one), yells at him to stay out of his room as he leaves the house. The credits start doing their thing as Stevie explores his brother’s room - playing with his weights, investigating his Jordans on display, extensively studying his music collection. A weaker person (like me) would have stayed clear of that room for life. But not Stevie; he’s in the testing the waters phase.
I didn’t have any older siblings to look up to, like Stevie seems to with Ian. As the oldest by nine years, my brother, Max, and I have an interesting relationship. There were pockets of time when I feel we didn’t have much in common due to the age difference, but they were few. Most of the time I vacillated between bossy older babysitting sister and trying to be a “wise” parental figure, but mostly I just wanted to be there. To show up. I wasn’t always there. I didn’t always show up. I wasn’t really that wise. I was pretty messed up a lot of the time we still lived together, and then I moved away, equally lost. I fled one coast for the opposite - far away to Los Angeles - with no plans to come back at the time - right when Max was just around Lil Stevie’s age, right when our tiny immediate family really needed some extra support (this era involved divorce, drugs, law enforcement, meddling neighbors, small town politics, etc. - enough drama for a Lifetime movie or an A24 indie). But I left, and left him, and I’ll always hate myself for that. There were good times growing up, don’t get me wrong. Building forts and creating imaginative worlds to play in with every conceivable toy we had, from Barbies to G.I. Joe’s to Ninja Turtles. Watching all three original Star Wars movies in a row as much as we could. Doing anything fun to keep him occupied so he didn’t hear our parents fighting again. But there were also things that stung, like when I found out he watched Kids at a sleepover when he was way young (his friend’s older brother put it on) and got sufficiently freaked. Other things, too. Why the fuck wasn’t I there to protect him? And even if I had been around, could I have? Should I have?
And this is why I think kids move to the next stage after sufficiently testing the waters - working towards full-on fuck it. Our friends become our mafia, our protection, our sages, our survival. Stevie, living with a cruel brother and a self-righteous, checked-out mother (a barely there Katherine Waterston - which is the point), takes a look around and realizes he needs that support right fucking now. So he seeks out a group who work and hang out in a nearby skateboard shop: Ruben, Fuckshit, and Fourth Grade, led by the über talented, wise skateboarder, Ray (charismatic Na-kel Smith). He starts by befriending Ruben, the youngest of the bunch, with mixed results, but slowly makes inroads. It isn’t long before he’s chilling in the shop with the crew and boarding to local parks to skate. What the crew quickly learns is Stevie has no fear - he’s gotten enough shit kicked out of him that a little scrape from his board or a tumble after a failed trick doesn’t really phase him. It’s not long before he’s smoking weed, drinking 40’s, hooking up with girls (uncomfortable scene alert!), downing Adderall. He goes hard not only to prove himself worthy to his new friends, but also to himself. When his brother Ian comes at him for various transgressions, Stevie, this time, does not play. He’s mastered the full-on fuck it level of puberty.
For Stevie, unlocking the full-on fuck it level is less about the skateboarding and more about finding his tribe, living the “us against the world” mentality that many at this age so aptly inhabit. Stevie isn’t destined for pro skateboarding status, but Ray is, and he knows it’s his one-way ticket out. Fourth Grade? He’s just a nice kid from a poor family looking for the confidence to be a filmmaker. Ruben doesn’t want to go home at night - too much abuse and neglect there. Fuckshit’s wrestling with his middle class upbringing and privilege. These kids don’t have it figured out, but at least they have each other.
It makes me think writer/director Jonah Hill must have found his tribe in similar fashion. Growing up in an affluent part of LA, Hill also worked at a skateboard shop before trading in west coast for east during college. To say Mid90s is autobiographical would be a little presumptuous of me - in interviews it seems like, yah, sure as hell this is based on his personal experiences. But there’s more to it than that. In an A24 marketing email addressed from Jonah Hill, he says, “…when I was a kid, skateboarding gave me friends, it gave me an aesthetic, an ethic, a point of view. It turned me on to punk and hip hop, and it’s guided me through my life. I’m so grateful for that, and a big part of why I made Mid90s was to show my gratitude for something that gave me so much.” It’s a thank you. And a beautiful one at that. My favorite moment hints at what Hill, the filmmaker, is capable of: our crew boards down the middle of a busy LA two-way street at sunset, set to The Mamas & The Papas “Dedicated To The One I Love” - it’s a romantic love note to all that skateboarding, and the friends that came with it, gave him.
Mid90s, despite the mid-90’s skate scene backdrop, is highly universal. We understand why Stevie et al. don’t want to go home at night because we’ve all been that age, not wanting to go home at night. Not wanting to face the lies and moods and tension and uncertainty. In high school, the only real reason I wanted to go home at night was to be with my brother. He was my partner in crime in the mess we called a family. The only saving grace I had. Max, if I could make a movie like Jonah Hill can as a way to say thank you, I surely would.