Content Warning: Brief mention of Self-Harm
In many ways, life can be considered similar to skateboarding. It can get you where you need to go, you can succeed, you can fail, when it knocks you on your ass all you can do is get back up. But most importantly, the key to both is finding your feet.
In Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, we follow 13-year-old Stevie, as he befriends a group of older adolescents’ after admiring their skateboarding skills and free-spirit attitude. Stevie is emotionally repressed due to the lack of a father figure in his life. At the start of the film, Stevie tries to latch onto his physically abusive brother as a mentor figure, admiring his room and engaging in his hobbies (the admiration/documentation of his music collection and lifting of his brothers weights), but after being rejected by his brother he turns to the skaters. Stevie is eager to please the group, engaging in dangerous skateboarding tricks, drinking, drugs and sexual encounters all to earn the admiration of the group. Stevie evens goes as far as changing unnoticeable things to please the group such as redecorating his room to remove all the “childish” elements. Through the group, Stevie finds the emotional connection he has been searching for, and despite putting Stevie into dangerous situations there is the genuine idea that the other members of the crew care for Stevie.
The other members of the crew are made up of; Na-Kel Smith’s Ray: the leader and best skater of the group, he doesn’t engage in the drug taking or drinking that the others do; Olan Prenatt’s Fuckshit, who, while a good skater, is more content to party, hook up with girls and drink than worry about his future; Ryder McLaughlin’s Fourth Grade, an aspiring filmmaker who rarely speaks; and Gio Galicia’s Ruben, who is the first to bring Stevie into the fold but also starts to resent him after the others take to him. One thing that makes Mid90’s so beautiful, is that Jonah Hill presents this group as a bunch of care-free guys, having fun spending their days drinking, smoking and skating, but underneath the surface it’s a group of deeply troubled adolescents who have formed a familial bond through their mutual love of skating. While there are hints of this throughout the film it ultimately comes to the surface in a scene where Ray comforts Stevie after he’s been embarrassed in front of the group by his Mum. Ray explains all the different troubles that each character is going through in their own way and explains how skateboarding is therapeutic for them and a way to forget their troubles and have fun. This is a beautifully touching scene that is capped off with a fantastic melancholic sequence of Ray & Stevie skateboarding against the cool tones of setting sun with Morrisey playing in the background.
This is easily one of my favourite sequences in the whole film and is the best representation of my opening paragraph. Stevie doesn’t have his life figured out, he’s stuck in an endless loop of turmoil, and much like his skateboarding, he keeps getting knocked down. To Stevie, Ray has his whole life figured out, he’s cool, he can skate, he plans on going professional, but in this moment Stevie realises that Ray has just as many issues as he does, and he’s only so good at skating, and in navigating life, because every time he got knocked down, he got back up and carried on. All of the choices in this scene enhance this idea, the moody but energetic drawl of Morrisey, the same location as previously used in the film but contrasted through the different time of day, the beautiful camerawork that is both distant and connected, and the choice to let the sequence play out in silence create a scene that while tinged with sadness, also sends a wonderful message about resiliency and the human spirit.
The film looks absolutely gorgeous, Jonah Hill and cinematographer, Christopher Blauvelt, capture the beauty of 1990’s Los Angeles through the films bright lighting but warm and subdued colours. Scenes of the boys skating are captured with a feeling of joyous youthfulness thanks to the dynamic camerawork and lighting, while the more intimate and emotional scenes use a static camera, sometimes distant from the scene (the opening shot for example with Stevie and his brother) and at other times with a close-up and intimate shot (Stevie’s self-harming for example), that convey the sadness and confusion that Stevie is going through. Nick Houy’s editing is fantastic, scenes flow into one other seamlessly, while others purposefully highlight the edit (the scenes where Stevie is practising skateboarding at home is a good example), and Houy’s style is great for achieving that contrast. Houy also worked on Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird & Little Women and I thought his editing in both of those was great as well. With the former films editing being similar with regards to not only the Los Angeles setting, but the smooth transitions between scenes but also using punchy editing to highlight the emotional nature of sequences. And just in case you need another reason to praise Houy’s editing technique, the film ends with a fantastic Video Days-esque sequence where Fourth Grade has created a skating video out of what he’s been shooting throughout the movie. It’s a fun little nod to Spike Jonze and similar classic skating-videos, but I was smiling throughout it just because of how well it captured the spirit of those old videos.
I do think that the film has some issues, in all fairness. If you couldn’t tell by now, I really do love this film and I think it’ll go on to have quite a following just because Jonah Hill manages to capture a sense of youth and freedom with such candour that will draw people in, that works really well along the nostalgic 90’s aesthetic. But there are moments where scenes drag on a bit too long, and the dialogue falls a bit flat, and some characters end up feeling underdeveloped. One example of this for me, is the scene where Stevie is yelling at his mum in the car, it is an intense scene that is performed well by both Sunny Suljic & Katherine Waterson, but after the scene ends we follow Stevie unable to control his emotions, but there isn’t any substantial reconciliation between the two after the scene until much later on following other big events in the film. While the scene highlights the fractured relationship between the two, it felt like a missed opportunity to not explore that any further. Similarly, in the relationship between Stevie and Ruben, while it’s slowly builds to a boil at the climax of the film, the script doesn’t give much room to explore the tension in any great depth.
But besides the faults and issues of the film, there is no denying that this is a fantastic first outing for Jonah Hill, showing promise in both his writing and directing ability. The acting from the young cast is admirable, with the whole cast giving really great performances throughout. I can definitely see myself revisiting this film over and over again, and I’m excited to see where everyone involved in the production goes next in their career.