Mid90s begins with a push, or rather, two. The film opens on production company A24’s logo, which has been fashioned by skateboards. A kid subsequently runs across the screen, shattering the logo. In the very next shot, the camera peers down a hallway for a few quiet moments until the silence is shattered by another kid being thrown into view by a shirtless Lucas Hedges, who menacingly emerges from a bedroom to the right of the camera. As Hedges slowly pummels the life out of the poor kid, we already know two things about the world of Mid90s thirty seconds in — firstly, it accommodates Lucas Hedges, and secondly, it’s a world of quick, erratic, passionate movement. This initial premonition is sustained throughout the film and comes to shape everything about the narrative of Mid90s.
Another thing about Mid90s is that it’s a Jonah Hill joint, but you may have known that already. Jonah Hill? The funny fat guy from 21 Jump Street and Superbad and The Wolf of Wall Street? Hill has matured, and his maturation shows in this movie. Sure, it’s not without its gags that thirteen year olds swearing up and down are the key to comedy, and it has quite a bit of Wu-Tang, but there’s an undercurrent of formality peering through the obscenity that has enough restrained maturity that I have to commend Hill for. And thank him for, because these kids have a long ways to go in that respect.
It’s the mid 90s, not surprisingly, and the streets of L.A. are ringing with the sound of Big L and skateboard wheels colliding with asphalt. These sounds reach the ears of protagonist Stevie (played by The Killing of a Sacred Deer‘s Sunny Suljic) through several layers; while the alternative crowd cuts their wheels in the street, he sits at home listening to his older brother Ian’s (Lucas Hedges) music and being beaten up for it (see opening scene). One day, while out in the street, Stevie observes a group of teenagers skating outside of a shop and sticking it to the angered owner, who tries to make them leave. Stevie becomes set on one goal and one goal only — joining this group and in some sense escaping the mundanity of his home life. Spoiler alert: he does. Stevie trades with his brother for a skateboard, takes it back to the shop, and quite adorably tries to impress the rest of the skaters. The rest of the movie plays out admittedly simply — Stevie bounces between the brokeness and restriction of his home life and the seemingly infinite freedom of skating. You can be one person before and after you step on the board, but when you’re on it — boy, when you’re on it.
It’s in another one of A24’s ventures, one by the name of Lady Bird, (also starring Lucas Hedges, who does theater instead of skateboarding and consumes a significantly smaller amount of orange juice), that one of the characters remarks “Love and attention…don’t you think maybe they’re the same thing?” If this is true, then Jonah Hill’s heart bursts with affection for 90s culture and skateboarding. From the very opening, the outfits of each individual character, their (admittedly colorful) vocabulary, and their outlook on life all reflect and encapsulate the LA of the 90s; Hill’s hyper observance of these salient aspects of skateboarding comes across, as it should, as a love letter to skateboarding, what it is, and what it does to those who practice it.
Perhaps that’s the most mesmerizing thing going on in Mid90s — its treatment of skateboarding as not just recreation or escapism, but as something much more potent and beautiful. Two quotes from the film support this — the first comes perhaps forty minutes into the movie, when Stevie and one of his friends sit in a skate park. The latter remarks to Stevie, “You understand why we ride a piece of wood, why we push on just a piece of wood, like what that does to somebody’s spirit?” Perhaps not the most articulate comment, but Hill chooses to thematically return to this; we observe how all the characters in the film are not at all rich, many in fact are in the depths of poverty. In fact, in one particularly heartbreaking scene, one of the characters points to a skater nicknamed Fourth Grade and tells Stevie that Fourth Grade is so poor he can’t even afford socks. Yet Fourth Grade doesn’t let poverty ensnare him, he chooses to skate, and throughout the film he serves as the official photographer of the group and dreams of becoming a famous film director. There is hope to be found in nothing; a sort of humility that brings out an appreciation for the necessities in life.
The second quote comes at the very end of the movie. Stevie is in the hospital after being involved in a terrible accident. A character named Ray (Na’kel Smith), who has become almost a sort of impromptu father figure to Stevie, sits at his bedside and tells him, “You literally take the hardest hits out of anyone I ever seen in my life. You know you don’t have to do that, right?” Mid90s ultimately is about these hits — not the kind you take when you’re skating though. It’s about the hits of life — abandonment, poverty, fear — that threaten to hold us down to the ground. When you’re learning to skate, you fall a numerous amount of times — hundreds, maybe — but if you’re going to learn, you have to be willing to pick yourself back up. Skateboarding to the marginalized isn’t a sport — it’s training for life, a sort of makeshift catharsis for those seeking to bridge the gap but who lack the proper tools to do so. And so it’s that simple. Learn to fall, learn to get back up, and when you inevitably wipe out, do just that — get back up.