The act of skateboarding requires a lot of persistence for very little reward, especially at first. For Stevie (Sunny Suljic), the main character in Jonah Hill’s film Mid90s, that means falling down over and over again in his driveway as he attempts to learn how to ollie. Hill includes multiple montages of Stevie repeatedly landing on his back; it’s painful to watch, but it’s all worthwhile once he finally gets his board into the air. Stevie desperately wants to be accepted into the group he idolizes, a cadre of teenage skaters who hang out in L.A. playgrounds, and those spills onto the concrete are the price he must pay.
Mid90s is Hill’s first film as writer and director, and it has the same try-hard feel as Stevie’s never-ending driveway practice sessions. It’s a coming-of-age movie with shades of Harmony Korine and Richard Linklater, a plot-light hangout drama that projects aimlessness but ends up seeming surprisingly calculated. Hill has made a film about befriending the cool kids that feels too self-conscious and impressed with itself, one aiming for authenticity that ends up falling short.
Though Hill grew up in Southern California in the mid-1990s, Stevie is not a directly autobiographical character. A latchkey kid raised with his brooding older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) by a single mom (Katherine Waterston), Stevie follows a tenuous day-to-day routine that allows him to slip away and spend time with his older friends, who go by inventive sobriquets like “Fuckshit” (Olan Prenatt) and “Fourth Grade” (Ryder McLaughlin). Their daily activities? Mostly sitting around smoking, skating in abandoned playgrounds, and cracking wise. To the 13-year-old Stevie, whose brother either bullies or ignores him, being in this circle is everything.
Suljic conveys that intense need beautifully, even as he lurks on the outskirts of this new community for the first act of the film, finding his way in slowly. His combination of guilelessness and earnestness draws the attention of Ray (Na-kel Smith), the group’s alpha skater and the only one harboring professional ambitions for the then-burgeoning sport. Ray is more focused than his burnout buds, but by and large the order of the day is chilling out. “All that try-hard shit, that shit’s corny,” Fuckshit professes, even as he admits that his well-off parents can support him in ways that Ray’s cannot.
Mid90s’s plotlessness is a bit of a ruse: There’s a pretty standard coming-of-age structure at work here. Stevie gets to know the gang of skaters, starts to hang out with them, and then gets into some fun scrapes, such as a confrontation with a rent-a-cop (Jerrod Carmichael). The boy sustains a nasty head wound attempting a difficult trick, which only earns him more respect; he later starts drinking, smoking, and partying. Aside from Waterston’s character (who grows more concerned as the action progresses), there are next to no women in the film outside of one scene revolving around an early sexual experience for Stevie. Hill is exploring a very masculine ecosystem, and the loose hierarchies contained within.
That means plenty of dirty talk and epithets are casually tossed around in the name of realism, but even more grating are the occasional profundities. Someone like Linklater can carry off intelligent teen dialogue without it seeming forced in films like Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!!, but in Mid90s the sincere moments, like the one where Ray sits Stevie down and has a heart-to-heart about his family, come off as scripted and trite. Of the ensemble, Smith sticks out as someone who can project pathos between the hijinks; everyone else is confined to one particular personality type (the bully, the stoner, the weirdo).
There are moments in Mid90s, all of them wordless, that genuinely click. Stevie’s appreciation of his growing popularity always comes when he’s alone in his room or gazing into the bathroom mirror; Hill and his cinematographer, Christopher Blauvelt, overexpose certain shots so that they look like faded photographs drowned in sunlight. In its quietest scenes, Mid90s feels a little more authentic, and Hill may well turn out to have a growing talent for directing. But he needs to match his subtler insights to a script that feels less derivative.