Summertime in 1990’s LA. The sun is shining, the streets are filled with people and school is finally out. However, 12-ish-year old Stevie struggles with finding anyone to spend it with. His older brother constantly beats him up, and his single mother works away from home all day. Stevie forsees yet another lonely and glum summer ahead of him until he discovers a crew of older rebellious teens at the local skate shop. With these newly-found friends, Stevie begins a summer of self-discovery.
Jonah Hill’s “Mid90s” is a movie about social confusion, growing pains and self-expression in a few skateboarding teenagers. Starring Sunny Suljic as Stevie, he finds friendship in what many would consider the scum of the city. They disrespect authority, smoke, drink and drop slurs like a bad habit, but they have a camaraderie like nothing else. As a group of outcasts, skateboarding is their escape from some kind of unfortunate home situation. Stevie finds a home in a ragtag group of misunderstood kids, with a wide array of personalities from the volatile Ruben (Glo Galicia) to the levelheaded Ray (Na-kel Smith); the movie gives the audience a portrait of the different ways kids will deal with the crappy hand life has dealt them. Hill shows the underground skating scene in its genesis. The sport was a way of rebellious self-expression before becoming so commercialized.
Stevie knows he has to jump on this opportunity for friendship immediately. So with no prior experience skateboarding, Stevie buys his older brother’s Ninja Turtles skateboard and shows up to the skate shop. Intimidated by the older kids, he sits off to the side during the group conversations. When they go skate, he sits against the wall with his board balanced on his knees as he watches and learns. Whenever he goes home, he spends hours in his driveway trying to learn. We follow him from failing to balance, to skating around in circles, to that cathartic first pop of an ollie. Jonah Hill paints a perfect picture of what it’s like to be the “unique” kid. Stevie has a lack of self-confidence, struggles through every conversation, and is by farthe worst skater of the group. But Stevie sees that potential for friendship and goes all in. He not only tries to be friends with the group, he idolizes them and follows everything they do, for better or for worse. Hill nails the feeling of being the third wheel of the friend group and trying to find a role model in a group of older teenage kids.
The film also pulls from 90’s nostalgia without going overboard. Hill shoots in a 4:3 square ratio with a 16mm camera, just like how directors like Spike Jonze and Richard Linklater were shooting music videos and independent movies around the same time. Little details like fisheye VHS skating tapes playing on thick TVs and unapologetically filthy language between the skaters subtly add to the 90’s atmosphere. Hill avoids cliche by showing the 90’s exactly as they were in all of their nasty, confusing and freeing glory.
“Mid90s” is ultimately a skateboarding movie for the kids who could never really get it down. Jonah Hill shows immense respect for the art and early culture of skating, while also showing the struggles of an insecure kid finding friendship. Anyone who felt like the third wheel to their compatriots growing up, or who grew up following some great skater around the skatepark on their Walmart board should find plenty to relate to here.
Clemson students can access “Mid90s” and many other movies for free on Tigerflix, Clemson’s streaming service. Students on campus can access it here. Off-campus students will have to use the school VPN, located here.