by Patrick Preziosi
Sunny Suljic, the wide eyed 13 year old who plays Stevie in Jonah Hill’s "Mid90s", is great at skateboarding, his Instagram host to various demonstrations of effortlessness. However, for the purpose of Hill’s obsession with authenticity for his own memories of the era, the character of Stevie lands what seems to be only one trick during the entire film, mostly fumbling throughout.
But that fumbling is enough for Stevie; his closest thing to a role model is his brutish older brother Ian (an against type Lucas Hedges), a hip-hop head who mostly uses Stevie as a punching bag, both physically and verbally, and their mother is mostly preoccupied with her tumultuous romantic life, doing little to try and facilitate deeper relationships among the three. Stevie needs something to fill the summer months, and the equal amount of skill and foul-mouthedness the guys at the nearby skate shop display is enough to get him to steal $40 from his mother to get a new board. Soon, Stevie has worked his way into a new group of friends, mostly based out of the aforementioned skate shop, who equally tease him while making him feel increasingly more welcome within their circle.
Hill has chosen to remember his own formative years of amateurish skating through Stevie, yet whatever unique summation of memory would be expected from a film announced with such personal roots is practically nonexistent in "Mid90s" which forgoes any sort of narrative weight for an overt obsession with a bygone era. Hill seems content enough to pair intricate period detail with a rote storyline of a ragtag group of friends, rendering his characters thin vessels of mere nostalgia porn.
Which is a shame, considering the likes of the supporting cast, mostly culled from the Illegal Civ skate line, a continuously budding West Coast institution. Ray (Na-kel Smith), Fuck Shit (Olan Prenatt), Ruben (Gio Galicia) and Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) are all wonderfully unpredictable characters, whose performances are disappointingly cut short to keep the focus mainly on Stevie, but not before Hill panders towards audiences’ empathy centers, with hints of troubled home lives separate from Stevie’s, but nothing enough for one to really sink their teeth into. Hill seems to be merely running down the checklist of what makes an archetypal coming of age story, and the 16 millimeter photography and“authenticity” do little to distract from this.
"Mid90s" owes a lot to Larry Clark’s "Kids" (1995), a similarly loping ode to youth and skateboarding. However, where "Kids" succeeds, "Mid90s" stagnates, unable to possess the same air of debauched danger as Clark’s masterwork, instead cramming all conflict into the last 30 minutes, before ultimately pulling the plug at a scant 84 minutes. In effect, Hill is now only paying homage to his own memories, his slanted attempts at authenticity somewhat invalidating the endurance of skate culture over the years. The urgency of "Kids" isn’t capitalized upon, opting to set it in the same exact era, with a particularly bloodless story, a protagonist who remains eternally uninteresting in the company of his dynamic cohorts, a needlessly beatific Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score, all of which result in an overwhelming artifice indicative of little more than a regressive, old-head mentality.