In the interest of transparency, I should tell you that I knew I was going to hate Mid90s from the minute it started—really, from the first shot. Jonah Hill’s first film as a director opens with a static shot of a hallway in a nondescript suburban home and holds for a moment of silence before a young man’s body hurtles through the doorways and smashes into a wall. He’s followed quickly by his older brother, who throws him to the ground and starts pummeling him with his fists. The movie’s grainy 16 mm texture and boxy 4:3 framing immediately announce the tradition Hill wants to situate himself in, a gritty, quasi-documentary style borrowed from Larry Clark’s Kids and its underground predecessors. But the soundtrack tells a different story. As 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) hits the wall, the air fills with a boom that suggests a building in an adjoining theater has just been struck by a very large missile, and every time his brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges), lands a punch, it sounds as if he’s whacking a cardboard box with a baseball bat.
This sort of audio enhancement (the technical term is “reification”) is standard industry practice, to the extent that it can feel disorienting when a character throws a punch and the theater’s subwoofers fail to disgorge their customary rattle. But in a movie that’s supposed to feel like an unmediated slice of life, it’s more disorienting when a brother beating on his sibling sounds like the Hulk landing a haymaker, and it turns out to be profoundly revealing of the degree to which Hill, while laboring to simulate the vibe of a leisurely hangout movie, lacks the confidence or the integrity to resist tarting it up with contrived conflict.
Stevie’s home life seems like an unending misery. His brother is alternately indifferent and abusive, and his mother, Dabney (Katherine Waterston), seems alternately too fatigued or too harried to intercede. So with the help of his friend Ruben (Gio Galicia), Stevie insinuates himself into a group of older boys who hang out at a local skateboard shop. (Some of them also seem to work there, although the line between bullshitting and gainful employment is a blurry one.) The gang is led by Ray (Na-Kel Smith), who’s confident enough in his skating to think he might turn pro, and his sidekick, nicknamed Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), whose long, curly blond hair makes him a frequent crush object for teenage girls. The crew is rounded out by Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), named for his intellect and not his age, who carries around a video camera and might as well wear a T-shirt that says, “Filmmaker Surrogate.” (Does Mid90s end with us watching the movie Fourth Grade has been making all this time? Reader, it does.)
Mid90s is also a coming-of-age story, and Stevie whips through a series of rites of passage faster than he has time to digest them. He’s quick-witted and hangdog enough to be adopted by the skaters as a mascot, eventually displacing the friend who brought him into the group, but the older boys, though more experienced, aren’t much more mature than he is. When Stevie ill-advisedly tries to emulate a trick they’ve just performed and ends up unconscious, they come close to leaving him for dead, and they’re more concerned with introducing him to alcohol and drugs than they are in teaching him how to handle them. He has his first sexual experience with a girl at a party, and though it’s filmed discreetly, the after-the-fact rundown he gives his pals is made positively unnerving by the fact that Suljic looks even younger than his 13 years.
The skaters’ dialogue is liberally spiced with homophobic and occasional racist slurs, and while anyone old enough to remember the 1990s can attest to the accuracy of their omnipresence, the movie’s inclusion of them feels like another cheap shortcut to verisimilitude. (Hill is substantially less reflective about the F-word than Quentin Tarantino is about the N-word, which is a sobering sentence to type.) While it would be a stretch to call Mid90s nostalgic, it fetishizes the past instead of questioning it, its documentarylike style feeling as if it’s supposed to trick us into feeling like this all just happened.
It certainly doesn’t work in Mid90s’ favor that it is the third movie released in the past two months to focus on an outsider with a turbulent home life seeking out community in the world of skateboarding. Even without the unflinching documentary Minding the Gap and the sure-handed docufiction Skate Kitchen, Mid90s would feel phony, but the former’s understated and thoughtful treatment of its protagonists’ real-life tragedies contrasts sharply with Hill’s attempts to wring pathos from his manufactured ones. Next to them, Mid90s just looks like a poser.