‘Mid90s’ is a heartwarming, frustrating tale of masculine self-discovery

There’s a paradoxical nature to coming-of-age movies: the most relatable ones are also the most specific, even if that specific experience is totally foreign to our own. I never suffered through the trauma of life as an adolescent girl, and I’ve never been to Sacramento. But I identify with Lady Bird because the emotionality of that film is tied to an experience that feels truly lived.

So it is with Mid90s, another A24-distributed coming-of-age nostalgia narrative from an actor-turned-director. Jonah Hill, who wrote and directed Mid90s, strives for the same sort of specificity as Greta Gerwig’s love letter to Sacramento, and largely succeeds on this front, creating an authentic portrait of the mid-1990s skater scene. We enter this world through the eyes of Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a sensitive but resilient pipsqueak who becomes entranced by the cool kids at a local skate shop. Stevie trades his bully of a brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) some cassettes for a skateboard, and the skaters eventually accept Stevie as one of their own.

Hill is unapologetic in his adulation for skater culture, and he takes great care to establish a vibrant community on screen. The group spends a lot of time skating, obviously, but Hill’s focus is on the ethos of this band of outcasts: disrespectful to authority and aimless, yes, but also unconditionally supportive of one another.

The group’s ringleader is Ray (Na-Kel Smith, an actual skateboarder, as are many of the actors), the best skater of the bunch and the most motivated to use his skating skills to escape a tough life. The other group members are Ruben (Gio Galicia), an insecure, homophobic kid with an abusive home life; Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), an intellectually limited, lanky teen more interested in filming the other skaters than in skating himself; and Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), a foul-mouthed jokester who matches Ray’s skills but lacks his motivation. Fuckshit would rather be partying, and the shenanigans Stevie finds himself participating in with his new friends strains his relationship with his mom (Katherine Waterston), who thinks he’s fallen in with the wrong crowd.

The way Hill portrays the skater group in Mid90s has drawn some ire. As The Ringer’s Alison Herman put it in one succinct tweet: ”Mid90s: the real toxic masculinity was the friends we made along the way.“ It’s a fair assessment, but Hill doesn’t outright sanction toxic masculinity: his intentions in portraying skater culture are frustratingly ambiguous. When you have this sort of “falls in with the wrong crowd” trope in a coming-of-age movie, filmmakers typically go down one of two paths: morally separating the hero from the bad influences but making it clear the hero learned lessons along the way (the Mean Girls method), or defiantly glorifying the debauchery of the bad influences (the Dazed and Confused method).

Hill somehow manages to avoid both of these tropes, mostly because Mid90s doesn’t really engage with the question of whether or not these kids are “good.” In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Hill said this about the film: “I wanted to show someone going through deep pain, and a real sense of hope through community, even if that community has deep flaws to it, like small-mindedness, prejudice, misogyny. For this kid, it still provided something hopeful, and perhaps these young men will grow up and unlearn some of this stuff.”

I’m all for creating a complex portrayal of a community that shows both its destructive and redemptive qualities. But Mid90s doesn’t critiques its characters’ obvious moral failings, and it also doesn’t indulge in full-blown nihilism, either. It’s a shaky middle ground that I found to be an uncomfortable and, frankly, weak approach. To ‘hope’ that these young men will unlearn the lessons bred in such hotbeds of toxic masculinity is willfully naive. The type of community Hill is showcasing in Mid90s is where those toxic masculine values are cultivated, and to attempt to take no stance at all on this fact is an ethical failure.

Part of the issue is that the problematic tendencies of Mid90s are so easy to focus on, because the film is so light on plot. Mid90s treats plot the same way it treats the inclusion of multi-dimensional female characters, which is to say it actively avoids it. Rather than employing the wistful aimlessness of films like Dazed and Confused or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, films which still managed to maintain a narrative throughline, the story in Mid90s is thin. The film wanders from skate park to party to back alley as characters drop the sort of wisdom that sounds enlightened when you’re talking to a stranger drunk at a party, but you can’t really remember the next day. Hill treats these tidbits as gospel.

I don’t mean to completely disparage Hill as a new directorial voice. Despite its mishandling of masculinity and plot, Mid90s is a genuinely promising debut. The film is particularly impressive visually. Mid90s is shot entirely in 4:3 ratio with a deliberate graininess, choices which create a 90’s home video aesthetic. It’s not something I’ve really ever seen before. Other films try to visually mimic the era they take place in, but these attempts are often hokey and superficial, like using bright, bubbly lettering in a movie set in the 70s. The visual style in Mid90s creates a genuine sense of specificity in time and place, and Hill and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt deserve credit.

Hill also has an obvious appreciation for music, and some of the film’s best sequences are those where the dialogue fades away and allows the soundtrack or the original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network, Gone Girl) do the talking for the film. It all adds up to a perplexing debut: I wouldn’t be surprised if Hill’s next movie is very good, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is very bad. I rarely think movies are too short; usually, there’s the opposite problem in the editing room. But Mid90s ends abruptly, and it could have honestly used another 25 minutes of plot. It’s a rough draft of a movie, and I’ll be interested to see what Hill does with a more fully fleshed-out project the next time around.

One thing is for certain: Sunny Suljic is a star. Mid90s has been billed as Hill’s movie in the press junket, but Suljic is the reason to go check it out. He manages to capture an early childish joyfulness and innocence and a later adolescent hardening with absolute conviction. He’s the emotional core of Mid90s, and its heartwarming moments wouldn’t work without him. One of Suljic’s only other feature roles, in Yorgos Lanthimos’s perverse The Killing of a Sacred Deer, was a completely different and equally compelling performance. Mid90s may be weighed down by some of its baggage, but the performances of Suljic and the other kids make it worth seeing.

Mid90s: 3 stars