My older brother was a skater, and I was born in 1994. Which makes me not the exact target audience of “Mid90s,” Jonah Hill’s skater-drama bildungsroman, but close. I was the one who watched David — more reckless, more likely to ask “why not?” — crash down stairs and fall off roofs and then, finally, land the trick, throwing his hands in the air with pride. It was fun. You’d witness danger combine with art and skill. Skating never let David play it safe.
Unfortunately, that thrill is the thing missing in “Mid90s.” Hill made a good indie movie, but he also didn’t seem to try anything that could’ve caused a broken bone.
Technically, yes, Hill does many things right. He uses a square frame, evocative of another era. The leads — played by Sunny Suljic, Na-kel Smith Ryder McLaughlin and Olan Prenatt — act well, especially for kids. The plot is thin but streamlined, a welcome change from sagging, two-hour dramas.
Yet, none of it soared, none of it showed off, none of it had that style or personal touch — the thing that makes you whisper “Oh, shit!” while you’re in your room watching a video of a man flipping a board around a parking lot. The shots of the actual skating are sub-par. The music never reaches the nirvana it can in many skate videos. By the end, you realize you’ve been tricked into a somewhat typical film.”Mid90s” does get pretty much everything “right” about the culture: the all-consuming nature of skating, and how it forms a community.
In the movie, 13-year-old Stevie (Suljic) goes from his older brother (Ian, played by Lucas Hedges) beating him up to pushing a board with a Colt 45 in hand pretty quick. Kids have sex/try drugs for the first time. Boys gather in a circle making bad (read: offensive) jokes. Moms yell at their children for hanging with the burnout kids. Friendships are a matter of life or death. Cigarettes are smoked for no reason. And Hill depicts each kid milestone earnestly; at times, you can feel him thinking, “OK, what are the big moments of childhood?” A scene teased out in the trailer, kids yelling at a rent-a-cop (Jerrod Carmichael), is particularly sublime.
But Hill seems to have missed the lessons on speed and joy from skating. Maybe more technique, like montage, used in actual skateboard videos would’ve added potency to the film. Good skate videos splice together tricks and music and madness (mostly young people spitting and cursing and vandalizing). It’s frenzied, unlike watching any other sport. I wish Hill had incorporated more of that outside of one clip at the end.
Instead, he adopts a slower and less experimental style than your typical skate video. It’s not bad. In fact, all the skateboarding, and ’90s-ness, is meticulously accurate. Yet, it’s too clean and frictionless; monologues, heartfelt resolutions, familial drama. I found that disappointing. But mileage may vary. A moment I found over-choreographed got my friend crying.
There is one moment in the film where Stevie kind of lands an ollie (the easiest trick, just jumping with the board). He screams with felicity. I remember that feeling. I think anyone can relate it. And it’s a beautiful thing to watch. But for anyone going into “Mid90s” in hopes of seeing greatness, or whatever the hell skating means to American childhood boiled down, the fabulous Bing Liu documentary “Minding the Gap” on Hulu might be the move. “Mid90s” is, unfortunately, a bit average.