Growing up is a monumental challenge at the best of times.
Throw in a less than ideal home life, like the ones alluded to in Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, mid90s, and you have the kind of near impossible situation where simply getting through the day is a feat, never mind navigating the tricky road to adulthood.
The brilliance of this film is that it doesn’t try to fix things; there is no bold declaration of this is how you make your way in a world that feels inimical to your every shot at happiness, no epiphany where the way forward is revealed, gilded with the dreams you have held tight too since childhood and garlanded by hope.
Taking place over one directionless summer in mid-1990s Los Angeles, the film documents the lengths people go in their teenage years to simply survive the rough passage of years where everything makes sense and absolutely nothing does.
13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is a good kid adrift, brought up by his single, loving mother Dabney (Katherine Waterson), who had her first child, Stevie’s neat freak, fitness-obsessed and disaffected brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) at the age of 18, to be polite, respectful and dutiful.
He is genuinely all those things but beaten up by Ian on a regular basis, who actually loves his brother in a weird, twisted way but has no outlet for his anger towards his mother, Stevie feels as if his home life is “shit”, a place where he has no means of escape or options to build something better, something escapist for himself.
His elusive escape route is presented to him one day when he’s riding past Motor Avenue Skateshop, a retail shop with few discernible customers, the main object of which seems to be to give Ray ( Na-Kel Smith) and his friends, Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) and Ruben (Gio Galicia) a place to hang out, shoot shit (their initial conversations are borderline pointless offensive), and fill in the long days between childhood and the evasive place called a future.
Stevie is smitten at once, eagerly rushing to fetch water for Ray and the others as they skate incessantly out the back of the store – Ray is the one with real talent, riding his board with a near balletic level of fluidity that’s almost beautiful to watch – convinced like some sort of L.A. sunstroked road to Damascus that in these four immature young guys likes the way of domestic salvation.
It doesn’t, of course, but Stevie’s 13, with all the limited understanding of life that entails, and so he sets about making his skateboarding dream come alive, trading cassettes with Ian for his old ’80s-style skateboard, ingratiating himself with the crew and earning, as the ultimate badge of acceptance, the nickname “Sunburn”.
Uncertain at first about breaking some of the sacred tenets of his life – don’t smoke or drink, respect authority, be deferential to your mother – he soon immerses himself in a world where alcohol, drugs, sex, and skateboarding naturally, are the elixirs of, if not a rosy future, then a way of making the present somewhat habitable.
Mid90s is in no hurry to tell its hurry, although at 85 minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome, only punctuating its slowly unspooling story with one dramatic moment (which is, to be fair, pretty dramatic, although its aftereffects, in keeping with the rest of the film’s vibe and tone, are not fully-defined), content to let the boys’ stories tell themselves.
As with pretty much anything in life, what you see is not necessarily what you get.
While Ray and the others look to be living Stevie’s dream life, the reality is starkly different, something which only emerges about two-thirds of the way through the film when Ray imparts a few home truths to Stevie about the kinds of lives they actually lead, away from the braggadocio and partying.
Far from being the party boy he is portrayed as, largely by association with best friend Fuckshit, a white boy who has appropriated black culture, with Ray’s blessing, to give meaning and form to his shapeless middle class life, Ray is thoughtful, kind, insightful and determined to get out of the ‘hood and make something of himself.
He worries constantly about Fuckshit who once shared those kinds of dreams and now only seems capable of finding the next high or losing himself in the hedonism of the next party.
It’s hard to tell if anything Ray says in this quietly-pivotal conversation actually impacts Stevie since Hill is wise enough to avoid the kinds of easy narrative tropes that mark more obviously-told films.
Certainly, it begins to dawn on Stevie that maybe life is a little more complicated than he’s given it credit for to date, a dawning realisation bolstered further when Ian shares some home truths, in what is as close as the two brothers get to actually relating meaningfully to each other, about the way their mum was before she had her second child.
The message, expressed without judgement or nakedly-awkward messaging, which frankly would’ve stood out like a sore narrative thumb and sunk a film which is content to present the facts and let you arrive at whatever point of understanding works for you, is that what you think is happening to you or people around you is often far further from the truth than you realise.
The reason why Hill’s decision not to give Stevie some kind of epic, breakout moment of existential comprehension, is so impactful is not simply because Stevie is just 13 and what young teenagers do you know who are capable of Dalai Lama-level life-corrective wisdom; it’s also because much as we try to break life down, make some sense of it and find some way out of situations that confound or trouble us, it’s never quite that easy.
Mid90s isn’t a hopeless film, but then neither is it singing solutions from the rooftops (good for skateboarding too as it turns out, though not for everyone); rather, it quietly and elegantly, and with surprising emotional impact, presents life as it is, revealing in the process that the gulf between the present and the future takes some tricky manoeuvring to navigate and whatever we think the way forward is, it’s going to way more nuanced and difficult than we expect.