If you asked me back in 2007 after watching Superbad which of the two leads I thought would go on to one day direct, I would not have picked Jonah Hill. But this article isn’t so much about Hill and his career, it’s about the visible passion – nostalgic or not – that he pours into his directorial debut, Mid90’s.
The A24 produced Mid90’s is the story of Stevie, played by Sunny Suljic, a scrawny, young-for-his-age thirteen year old, growing up in Los Angeles during the 1990’s. (Shout out to Sunny for being the sad little brother in The Killing of A Sacred Deer). Now, I’m not a boy and I never learned to skateboard, but I still majorly identified with Stevie throughout this story. The film opens with a jarring scene of Stevie getting the literal crap beaten out of him by his older brother, Ian (played impeccably against type by Lucas Hedges). He is told to stay, “out of my fucking room,” by Ian before Stevie leads us, straight into that sacred bedroom space, and thus, into the nineties. Watching Stevie poke through his brother’s cd collection - writing down names of artists (ahem, Fat Joe) and albums – evoked that same deep feeling of awe and admiration that I had for my own older siblings and peers while growing up. As the youngest of three kids (by quite a few years) my introduction to music and what was “cool” was from my older sisters. I tagged along – whether they wanted me to or not – with their friends, admiring them and mimicking them. Now, let me preface this with the fact that Stevie has a shitty role model in Ian. Ian is totally reminiscent of many a white boy in the ‘burbs who listens to rap and tries to act tough. He’s a bully and he doesn’t look out for his little brother, nor does he appreciate any of Stevie’s admiration or attempts early on in the movie at making peace.
Stevie’s mom, Dabney (played by growing star Katherine Waterson) had Ian when she was very young. Their mother-son relationship is strained at best, but you can tell she has a closer bond with Stevie. The boys’ dad (or different dads?) is totally out of the picture. We never even hear about him. We do hear Ian mention all of the various men Dabney used to bring home while Ian was little. This is described in confidence (but more like a taunt to bring their mom down a notch) after Stevie witnesses one man leaving his mother’s room in the morning. Despite the visitor, these days Dabney seems to be a hard working single mom, who spends most of her nights at home, watching movies with Stevie.
With a crappy older brother who beats on him and a single mom working most of the time, Stevie is left to his own devices over the summer. He watches a group of boys from afar who hang out on the streets and skateboard. After hanging out a bit at the local skate shop, he meets Ruben (Gio Galicia), the youngest of the group. Ruben sees Stevie as someone he can mentor (and potentially boss around) but welcomes him. The rest of the clan comprises of Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) and Ray (played by break out star, Na-kel Smith). McLaughlin, Prenatt and Smith are all skaters first. They knew each other from skating together, not acting. That helps the film immeasurably. While it could have been a detriment, it actually makes it that much better having kids skate first and figure out the acting as they go. It is interesting to hear that Sunny Suljic (Stevie) also grew up skating, and thus, had to act at “skating badly.”
Stevie eventually barters with his brother for an old skateboard and he starts practicing. I like the fact that we see Stevie practice and fall repeatedly throughout the film. He doesn’t all of a sudden become a skating pro. But we do witness him nail a kickflip for the first time, ecstatic and triumphant after hours of failure, despite no one else being there to witness it. Stevie definitely idolizes Fuckshit and Ray, the two oldest and coolest kids of the group. While both are great skaters, Ray takes it more seriously. For him, skating is a way to get out of their neighborhood. For Fuckshit (whose nickname alone gives you an idea) life is more about enjoying the ride and getting messed up in the process. As Stevie earns his own nickname, “Sunburn” and gains more clout within the group, things become strained between him and Ruben. Stevie has a lot of “firsts” throughout the movie as a result of his newfound friends: first time in a car without a parent, first cigarette, first drink of alcohol, first kiss or any kind of sexual activity. But early on, we witness that Stevie is still fairly innocent and unscathed. He is appreciative of being included, one of the pack. When he attempts to make a jump over a gap between buildings that the older kids easily clear, we are terrified. Stevie drops like a sack of potatoes and smacks his head on the table below. He could be dead, but we see him hold a t-shirt to his bleeding head and earn the respect of his peers.
Later, after an emboldened Stevie comes home drunk from a party, he has a huge fight with his brother. But he isn’t all of a sudden big and able to take him on. He screams and runs away and gets the crap beat out of him again. Ian’s earlier taunts of Stevie and his “ghetto-ass friends” hits home. One of the standout sequences of the film is when Stevie and Ray have a heart to heart the next day after the whole ordeal. Ray says that, “A lot of the time, we feel like our lives are the worst, but think if you looked in anybody else’s closet, you wouldn’t trade your shit for their shit.” He helps Stevie see that all of them each have their own problems to deal with. Fourth Grade is one of the poorest kids he knows, Ruben’s mom beats up him and his sister, his relationship with Fuckshit is strained as he dabbles more and more into alcohol and drugs, and Ray himself, lost his own little brother. So he gets Stevie to snap out of it by telling him, “Let’s go,” and taking him skating. The experience of skating and being together with someone who feels like family more than your own family is what truly helps Stevie. Ray proves to be more of brother and role model to Stevie than his own flesh and blood.
But despite all of the positives that come from making a new pack of friends and experiencing a lot of firsts, Stevie is definitely also gaining some bad influences. Like watching the characters change and evolve in Lords of Dogtown, you see tension build between Fuckshit and Ray as Ray meets professional skaters and works on building his reputation, just as Fuckshit seems to trash his. Fourth Grade, (teased at having a fourth grade vocabulary), films his friends, another throwback to Dogtown and Z-Boys. He captures the skating and experiences of his friends, giving us another lens to view them. The skating feels real, but so does the dialogue between these teenagers. It is often homophobic, misogynistic and even racist at times. This is not to condone any of this speech or behavior, but I found myself agreeing that it would be unrealistic to portray this group of boys any other way.
One of the most effective methods Jonah Hill uses to build camaraderie and mood throughout Mid90's is through music, utilizing both well-known songs and an original score created by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Back when my older sister was listening to Nine Inch Nails, I had no idea that Trent Reznor would go on to create some of the best “mood pieces” in film. I should have known. That being said, the real piece de resistance is the handpicked movie soundtrack by Hill. Hill has said in interviews, “The music in Mid90's is incredibly personal to me” and it shows. Hill even went on to curate a playlist of the soundtrack and additional songs inspired by the movie that you can check out on Spotify. The movie’s trailer highlights the Wu-Tang Clan’s, “After the Laughter Comes Tears,” featuring samples from the original, “After Laughter Comes Tears” by Wendy Rene. The soundtrack is a mix of artists like A Tribe Called Quest, The Pixies, Del The Funky Homo Sapien, Bad Brains, GZA and more.
Stevie’s mom finally blows her stack, coming into the skate shop to reprimand the rest of the boys. She doesn’t want him hanging out with them anymore. But for the first time, Stevie acts like a teenager, yelling and screaming in disagreement with her. During the film’s final act, Stevie seems to be on a downward spiral, drinking and getting into fights with Ruben and anyone else who push him. After a night out when the group seems to be falling apart, Fuckshit wants to drive them to one more party. He is clearly drunk, but everyone gets in the car with him anyway. It leads to a horrific accident where only Stevie really gets hurt and ends up in the hospital. He wakes up with his arm in a cast and his brother, Ian waiting there for him with a peace offering of orange juice. A distraught Dabney finds all of the other boys asleep on chairs in the waiting room of the ER. She comes to terms with the fact that whether or not they are a good influence, they care about Stevie, and she lets them visit him. The film definitely ends on a more nostalgic note, with Fourth Grade playing his edited short skate film of them for the entire group in Stevie’s hospital room. We don’t know what is going to happen to each of these boys but we do know they have each other. It’s Jonah Hill’s first film. I’ll let him have this one. The love he seems to have for this time period and the experience of friends-as-chosen-family is one I can identify with. The actors’ strong performances alone (anchored in particular by Na-kel Smith) make seeing this film worthwhile. The movie has a purposefully gritty quality to it that feels true. It is definitely worth a watch (and a listen to that soundtrack).
Besides watching movies, Diana likes the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school drop out. IG: @dldimuro