Jonah Hill’s film “Mid90s” transfixes viewers from the start with close-up skateboarding shots and action-packed scenes that reveal turmoil at home. The film follows 13-year-old Stevie’s (played by Sunny Suljic) summer adventures in Los Angeles as he weaves between life at home with his single mom (Katherine Waterston) and abusive older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges).
The film features a colorful cast of characters as members of Stevie’s friend group. Ruben (Gio Galicia) is the youngest of the group and instantly connects with Stevie, easing Stevie’s initial transition into the group. Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) adds some welcome comic relief and unique visuals to the film with his own choppy footage of his friends skateboarding, partying and driving. Ray (Na-kel Smith), the leader of the group, dreams of a future within the skateboarding world and takes Stevie under his wing. On the other hand, Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) has an attitude that matches his nickname and is constantly on the lookout for fun, drugs and alcohol.
The film is painfully realistic in its presentation of young adolescents trying to find their way in the world. Stevie’s relationships with the older members of the group serve as an important foil to his fractured bond with his own elder brother. In a particularly poignant scene, Ray takes Stevie to an abandoned skate park and mentors him into the early hours of the morning; the two even end up sleeping overnight in the park. But Ruben and Stevie’s relationship gradually sours over the course of the film as they compete for the attention of the older boys, and comes to a head in a physical fight toward the end of the film.
At times the film is uncomfortable to watch because it hits so close to home, touching on issues such as abuse, depression, addiction and poverty. The film’s presentation of these subjects is only surface-level, but snapshots of Stevie’s life could suggest deeper internal struggles. Stevie’s complicated relationship with his brother and mother are never fully fleshed out, nor are the home lives of the group, but in this film there’s no need. Hill refuses to diagnose or label Stevie or his friends for us and chooses instead to just present them as they are — young, confused and passionate. Viewers empathize with Stevie as he gradually develops his skateboarding skills, from the first time he flips his board to the time he tries to skate over a gap in the roof and falls — only to get right back up with a huge smile.
“Mid90s” is also full of contradictions, and it toys with the audience’s expectations. Stevie does everything that Ian expressly forbids: “Don’t go in my room, don’t touch my stuff, don’t hang out with those kids.” In another break from convention, a police officer at a skate park begins by berating the boys for trespassing but instead proceeds to joke around with Fuckshit and walk away without taking further action.
The ending of the film also subverts expectations, concluding very abruptly; Stevie wakes up in the hospital after a drunk driving accident engineered by Fuckshit. As Stevie is surrounded by his friends and mom, it looks like just another day in his life — but all of a sudden the film cuts to Fourth Grade’s camerawork and the curtain closes on the production. This conclusion provides a gritty finish and reflects life — the ending you expect doesn’t always happen.
“Mid90s” toes the line between a comedy and a drama. There are moments in the film that will leave viewers chuckling and others that only warrant gasps. The film is a candid portrait of what it means to be a teenager grappling with newfound independence and how to cultivate healthy relationships.
The Ivy Film Festival hosted an advance screening of “Mid90s” Oct. 15 at the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts. The film is currently being screened at the Providence Place Mall.