When talking about the 1990s, the skateboarding subculture often gets overlooked. We know about the grunge movement because it branched off into so many different identities. And we know about ’90s hip-hop culture, which transcended those involved and also helped dictate mainstream fashion and trends for years to come. But the particular and very specific movement talked about in Mid90s is sort of an amalgamation of the philosophies of both the aforementioned. Hip-hop’s golden age of the late ’80s and early ’90s held similarities to the antiestablishment ideals of grunge, but by the time the mid-’90s rolled around, hip-hop was about being cool. Kurt Cobain once said, “I’d rather be dead than cool.” One was subculture. The other bordered on counterculture. Skating seemed to be a little of both.
As depicted in this movie, boarders of that same era seemed to possess these conflicting ideals. Where one might be perfectly content with his lack of direction in life, preferring to skateboard all day, another saw his talents as a way to a better life. With both embracing the same style and spirit of the movement.
MId90s is about a young boy, Stevie (Sunny Suljic), who lives with his older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges), and his young mother (Katherine Waterston). Stevie looks up to Ian, but Ian is a ruthless bully to his little brother–never giving him anything back in terms of kindness. Even though Stevie still wants to be like Ian, he stumbles upon a group of skaters who hang out in a skate shop unsupervised by adults of any kind.
The teenagers are a lot older than Stevie, but still let him into their circle. Unapologetically crass and rebellious, these kids remind Stevie of his brother–except they accept him for who he is. They are essentially Ian–but treat Stevie much better.
If he were an older kid, Stevie’s idolization of these seemingly unappealing kids would be somewhat sickening. Many of their idiosyncrasies are cringy, albeit accurate to the scene. Although we would think this because we, as an older audience, have a more decent grasp on the world. Stevie’s naivety is more understandable because he’s so young (Suljic was 11 at the time of filming). His thirst for their approval is still somewhat sad, but the more his character develops, the more we understand why he thirsts for it. And the more we see of his friends, the more we grow to like (most of) them.
Writer/director Jonah HIll gives us his all with his debut movie. He takes mostly non-actors and sticks them into these roles that are both similar and different from their real-life personas. And at times it shows through in both good ways and bad.
Leading the pack is Ray (Na-kel Smith), the best skater of the bunch with realistic hopes of going pro. He sees skating as a way to get out of his current situation–unlike some of the others who are content with living the underground skating lifestyle for the rest of their lives. Smith does a superb job with his character, bringing a candid performance to a very powerful role, making it seem effortless and real. Suljic also does great as Stevie, trying to navigate his way through adolescence and facing the ultimately beneficial consequences of his stream-of-conscious babbling.
A couple of the other teens are good examples of the style of filmmaking made known by Harmony Korine’s 1995 film Kids where non-actors are put into “acting” roles and told to essentially play themselves, giving raw performances. Everything is raw, from what they say, to how they deliver it–flubs and all. And it’s up to Hill and his team to edit the footage and make it feel real. They do an amazing job.
But unlike Kids, or even a movie like 1992’s Singles, which also represents an era (grunge), Mid90s isn’t representing a current movement or subculture–it takes place over twenty years ago, which gives Hill the advantage of hindsight, but also the liability of too much perspective.
Fortunately for Hill, he utilizes that hindsight extremely well.
Stevie’s desire to be like these skaters before he knows anything about skating speaks a lot to identity in general and why we identify with certain types of people and cultural movements. He wasn’t a skater seeking out others of his kind–he was attracted to the scene and culture first, wanting to learn to skate because of that reason alone.
Mid90s is a film that grows on you in a big way. It’s a great snapshot of a period in time a lot of us grew up in. And living in California, a lot of us knew and were friends with people involved, or aspiring to be involved in this subculture. Hill’s movie isn’t nearly being talked about enough. It’s one of those films that’s going to be looked back on as important, even if we don’t realize it today–much like the time period being represented.