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.