Written and directed by Jonah Hill, Mid90s paints a deeply personal, sun-drenched vision of skate culture in Los Angeles, as seen through the eyes of its teenage protagonist. It’s the latest production from A24, the company who brought us Moonlight, Lady Bird and Eighth Grade, who have established themselves as the foremost voice in films about the pains and pressures of growing up.
Mid90s represents a somewhat unexpected addition to the A24 canon. It is almost the definition of a minor film: low on plot, low on urgency, held together by little more than a sense of feeling and its A-list director. The film follows Sunny Suljic’s Stevie (who’s 13, in the movie, but looks about five years younger than that) who’s bullied at home by his older brother, played by Lucas Hedges, and protected by his overstretched single mother (Katherine Waterston). He falls in with a band of loveable rogues – Ruben, Fourth Grade, Fuckshit and Ray – and the story develops into a classic coming-of-age one, as the unlikely gang coalesce around a shared love of skateboarding.
Each has their own, small, personal drama. Ruben feels usurped by Stevie; Fourth Grade isn’t taken seriously; Ray wants to go pro with his skating; and, most of all, middle-class Fuckshit is on the road to personal destruction. In the middle of them, Stevie rotates like a big-eyed fawn, just glad to be taken along for the ride. And it’s a brief ride, just 85 minutes, which clip by well enough, and will satisfy moviegoers who find there’s something enjoyable in and of itself about watching underage kids swearing and drinking beer and performing death-defying stunts. It’s a meandering, more than meditative, look at the mid-90s, never really trying to scrape beneath the surface of the racial or class issues that it flirts with. But that’s part of the point: it’s fundamentally a film about good people being kind to one another.
It’s the sort of film that doesn’t get made, unless your Jonah Hill. Every opportunity for the film to bare its teeth and make a pressing statement about something is passed up. Suljic is a very likeable protagonist but Lucas Hedges feels miscast as the tough exterior, weak core brother (he often seems to get roles he doesn’t quite fit the bill for, which makes me wonder if there are family ties working in his favour…). There is one woefully misjudged sequence in which Stevie (who, bear in mind, looks 10 at best) is taken off to the bedroom of a girl in her late teens for his first, formative sexual experience. It is a bad read of the current climate to present what is transparently some sort of sexual assault as a sort of masculine watershed, especially with a protagonist almost defined by his visual vulnerability.
In the end, Mid90s is harmless and, at times, funny and charmingly nostalgic. But unless you’ve spent the last 25 years lamenting the loss of VHS, Super Nintendo and Nirvana – or are a manic Katherine Waterston completist – then there’s no real need to see this film. Which is a strange feeling to come away from with a film produced by what has been America’s most relevant film company of the past few years.