November 1, 2018 | Arts and Culture
he was a skater boy
at the movies: mid90s
It could have been us, if we had been a half-generation older. In the first scene of the Jonah Hill-directed film, Mid90s, 13-year-old Stevie breaks into his brother Ian’s room. With his stack of issues of The Source, his collection of Air Jordans, his long shelves of CDs organized alphabetically, and the Wu-Tang poster on his wall, Ian is Stevie’s closest approximation of cool. If he can just listen to the right bands, get really good at Street Fighter II, and learn to smoke cigarettes, Stevie thinks he can be just as cool as his brother. But then Stevie realizes that all the neighborhood boys have moved on to the another fad: skateboarding.
It’s been over 20 years since the mid-1990s, which is more than enough time for nostalgia to set in. Last year, we got Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, a coming-of-age film that basked in Dave Matthews Band songs and 2002 Sacramento. No one attracts teenage viewers like Netflix, whose Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Riverdale are both revivals of shows that premiered in 1996 and 1997. In other words, Jonah Hill knows that borrowing from the not-so-distant past is a low-risk strategy. When his youthful protagonists sprinkle their conversations with Simpsons references (“You look like fucking Mr. Burns”), wear D.A.R.E. shirts, and the slurs that society has since banished, older viewers will engage in instant fact-checking. For those born after the mid-1990s, however, the moment unfolds for the first time.
True to the spirit of skateboarding, Mid90s is mostly a hang-out film. The plot, however, proceeds on two tracks around the baby-faced Stevie (Sunny Suljic). On one hand, Stevie has his home life split between violent disagreements with Ian (Lucas Hedges) and his caring, but oft-absent single mother (Katherine Waterson). On another hand, Stevie’s days are spent with a group of teenage boys he befriends in the film’s opening. The group’s base is the local skate shop and their leader is the affable and extremely talented Ray, who gifts Stevie a new skateboard. The remaining crew members include the braggart, Rueben, the hard-partier, Fuckshit (named for his reaction to sick tricks), and the aspiring documentarian, Fourth Grade (named for his assumed stupidity). Together, they skate through abandoned parking lots, the tops of buildings, and two-way turn lanes. No one seems to go school, but given the weather of Los Angeles, it might just be summer.
Barely uttering a word in the first few scenes, Scottie eventually grows into his role with the skating crew. After a long evening spent mastering a kickflip, he wins the group’s respect when he tries a jump that ends in disaster. Blood gushing from his forehead, Scottie doesn’t cry. “I’m alright, I’m alright,” he tells his increasingly concerned friends. At a house party, one of the few scenes where the skaters mix with girls, Scottie hooks up with an older teen, Estee. Hill takes advantage of the tight frame (he shoots the film in the box-like Academy ratio) to show Estee and Scottie’s faces merging until they are indistinguishable. When they move apart after the kiss, Scottie’s first, backlight saturates the screen.
This is just one of the impressive touches that shows Hill has been paying attention since his acting career began 15 years ago, with his stoner classic, Superbad. Claiming Spike Jonze’s music videos and Larry Clark’s anarchic Kids as influences, Hill mostly lets the unknown cast of Mid90s improvise. Na-Kel Smith as Ray, the dreamer of the group (“We used to have all dreams. Now it’s sad.”) is the standout find. Hill also strikes a nice balance between the spare piano score composed by Trent Rezner and Atticus Ross and the soundtrack (highlighted by the Pixies and the booming intro of Omega’s “Gyonghaju Iany”).
Even with its brief 85-minute runtime, Mid90s finds itself running on fumes by the end. The unexplained traumas that keep Stevie’s brother Ian friendless and angry lurk beneath the surface. But while the film’s tensions often boil over with frightening intensity, they don’t build toward any subjectivity or thematic significance. Although she shouts from time to time, Stevie’s mom is never enough of a force to threaten Stevie or his skating crew. This paper-thin family plot may be Hill’s way of showing how skateboarding is Stevie’s “real” family or community. But Mid90s’ skater boys are mostly just skater boys; they hang out, they flee from the police, and then they run it all back the next day. It isn’t the stuff of legend.
What is so special about the mid-1990s? The youthfulness of Scottie begins to look less like a deliberate choice and more like an excuse for Hill to escape responsibility for the past. No, Hill doesn’t have to include legislative battles of the Clinton Administration, or even the aftermath of the Rodney King riots, which transformed Los Angeles. But Mid90s does need to justify the relationship between its present-day release and its title.
The philosopher Stanley Cavell once defined nostalgia as “an inability to open the past to the future.” If Jonah Hill ultimately falls victim to nostalgia in his directing debut, it is because he worries about remembering the past more than imagining the future. Scottie won’t stay a kid forever. And when he grows up, he will learn that skateboarding trends fade, but history, it’s never over.