‘Mid90s’ Gets It Right: A Skate Betty Reviews Jonah Hill’s Film Debut
Costume designer Heidi Bivens combed through ’90s skate magazines for inspiration.
Photo via IMDb.
After I left a screening of Mid90s, I texted everyone I knew that, “Mid90s was soooo fucking good, Jonah Hill is a genius”—and nobody believed me.
Apparently, according to everyone I know, my credibility to judge a coming-of-age movie about skateboarders is marred by the fact that I am a “skaterdater,” or “skate-betty,” or “skate hoe.” While, sure, I may have a soft spot for people that know the Palais de Tokyo exclusively as a skate spot called “le dome” with a hubba ledge and a double set, Jonah Hill’s Mid90s charms even those without a predilection for skaters. Still, the best thing about Mid90s is that it is the rare movie about a subculture that actually gets the crew it idolizes right.
Mid90s follows Stevie (Sunny Suljic,) a lonely tween boy with a slightly checked-out single mother, Dabney (Katherine Waterston), and an angry, violent older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges.) Stevie wanders around Los Angeles, friendless and alone, when he comes across four skateboarders outside a Motor Avenue skate shop. They’re joking around, pestering pedestrians, high-fiving each other. They’re a unit unlike any family Stevie’s been a part of. One of the guys is nicknamed Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt, who skates for L.A.’s Illegal Civilization) because he encouragingly says “fuuuuuck, shiiiiit” whenever someone lands a sick trick.
Stevie bikes home, determined to join this community. He trades his brother some video games for a dinky ’80s style hammerhead-shape skateboard that says COWABUNGA and returns to the shop. Eager to befriend the crew, he has no clue how to act natural: he sprints to refill their water bottles and grins as he watches them skate, clutching his board from his perch on the street. When one of the younger skaters, Reuben (Gio Galicia) offers Stevie a cigarette and Stevie thanks him, Reuben tells Stevie never to say thank you— that it’s “gay” to say thank you. Or be nice.
At his first hangout at the shop with “the guys,” dim-witted filmer Fourthgrade (Ryder McLaughlin, who also skates for Illegal Civilization)—so named for his elementary school intelligence level—asks Ray (Na-Kel Smith, who rides for Supreme and Adidas), who is black, if black people can get sunburns. Ray asks Stevie, who has been smiling and nodding along, what he thinks. He momentarily loses the ability to speak, and replies, “What are black people?” To Reuben’s horror, the guys love Stevie’s strange response and dub him “Sunburn”; he’s part of the crew. Reuben seethes; he’s been friends with these guys longer than Stevie and has no nickname.
Intimidated by this crew of cool elders, Stevie acquires a stoicism that masks his immense capacity for compassion, which, as Reuben told him, is “gay.” Young men ignoring their emotions and then lashing out is a primary theme of the film. Stevie self-harms: he steals money from his mom to buy a new board, and, wracked with guilt, scrapes a hairbrush on his stomach until he cries. Ian continually beats up Stevie—it’s the film’s opening scene—and calls their mother promiscuous, and Stevie strangles himself with a wire garrote. Rather than express his feelings of jealousy, Reuben physically fights Stevie at a skate park as dozens of older skaters cheer them on. Fuckshit, feeling left behind by Ray’s bourgeoning pro-skating career, drinks to excess, embarrassing himself and putting the boys in danger.
The film has drawn comparisons to Larry Clark’s Kids, not simply because it’s a film centered on skateboarders, but for its depictions of vulgarity, crass language, and teen drinking and sexuality. (Kids screenwriter Harmony Korine even makes a cameo in the film as one of Stevie’s mom’s sexual partners, because, as Hill said in an interview, ”Who’ s the last person in the world you want to fuck your mom? Harmony Korine.”) But Hill’s film is less nihilistic about teenage life; ultimately, it’s a celebration of the bonds that develop between young men. As Stevie embeds himself further into the skate crew, Reuben’s assertion that gratitude is “gay” is quickly corrected: “It’s just good manners!” Ray tells him. If Clark’s film could feel exploitatively bleak about growing up, Hill’s feels like a blessing.
At the skate park, Fuckshit and Ray hang out with a homeless man (played by rapper Del the Funky Homosapien.) The man thanks the boys for talking with him, saying that it makes him feel better to connect with people, as so many of his friends ignore him because he’s on the streets. Hill called this his favorite scene in a live-streamed Q&A after the film—it demonstrates the way Mid90s is set in a time when skateboarders existed on the fringes of society, Hill said, before they were widely accepted by the mainstream as minor celebrities and fashion icons.
Speaking of which: though Jonah Hill is a veritable Style God, the credit here goes to costume designer Heidi Bivens. Bivens, who was an extra in Kids, combed through ’90s skate magazines, borrowing and reproducing only T-shirts actually made before 1995. The skate shop has racks of Alien Workshop gear, the guys skate Mark Gonzales’s Blind Skateboards boards or Girl Skateboards Rudy Johnson decks, they wear puffy shoes, enormous pants, éS, shoelace belts, Droors. They skate at real L.A. spots such as the West L.A. courthouse in Santa Monica (now a Nike skatepark). The triumph of Hill’s film is that he surrounded himself with the right people—like Aaron Meza, iconic ’90s skate video filmmaker and creator of skate website Crailtap, who oversaw the actual skating style—to help bring his vision to life.
More than any skate-centric film, Mid90s reminded me of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, another actor’s near-perfect directorial debut, put out by A24 last year. Both films capture the songs, the clothes, the feel of the time. You can tell Gerwig and Hill are each making a somewhat autobiographical story that they’ve been thinking of for decades, that each detail has been considered because it’s so personal.
Hill has said, “Mid90s were no skate porn, and no nostalgia porn.” The film is painstakingly art directed to look like the ’90s and is literally about skateboarding, yet Hill makes good on his two rules. When the older boys attempt to skate a huge gap, and Reuben chickens out, Stevie attempts it. In a worse movie, Stevie would triumphantly land the trick, but for Hill, it’s a slapstick setup, and Stevie eats shit big time.