There’s a scene in Jonah Hill’s Mid90s when Stevie [Sunny Suljic], a scrappy young skateboarder with a shitty home life, receives some valuable advice from an older skater after getting into a fight with his mother. Ray [Na-kel Smith], the older skater, explains that he had a younger brother who died tragically. Afterward Ray could barely peel himself out of bed, much less go skate, until a friend of his “literally dragged me out of bed and made me go skate.” Sensing Stevie’s desperate need for something to lift him out of his depression, Ray says, “So, let’s go,” before hopping onto his board and pushing away.
On its surface, Mid90s is a snapshot of a kid trapped in a difficult and sometimes violent household he's trying desperately to escape. An exceedingly quiet and seemingly lonely kid, Stevie finds acceptance with a group of misfits at an LA skate shop called Motor Avenue. Ray, Fuckshit, Fourth Grade, and Ruben welcome him into their crew, helping him in life as much as in skateboarding. It’s a powerful exploration of teen (and pre-teen) angst and an illuminating look at the way kids discover themselves through their friends. Where Mid90s really shines, though, is in the way it’s able to paint a portrait of what skateboarding means to its most fervent participants and the influence it holds over them. In Ray’s case, it was enough to lift him out of the depression left by his brother’s death, and in Stevie’s it allowed him to find a tribe of people who accepted him for who he was, and offered an escape from his troubled home life.
It’s difficult to convey just how much skateboarding means to the people who love it without using religious allegories, and when most films try they fail miserably, coming across as overwrought or cliched in a way that’s cringeworthy to anyone who's ever been consumed by the culture. For my money Mid90s is the first mainstream-ish film to capture the feeling of popping an ollie for the first time or the dramatic rollercoaster of emotions that come from finding yourself sprinting full-speed, heart pounding, from the cops seconds after enjoying a lazy session with friends in an abandoned schoolyard.
The challenge of accurately portraying these feelings on a big screen—and the risk that skaters would brutally clown on him if he fucked it up—was not lost on Hill, who grew up skating in Los Angeles. “Part of the thing was like, 'Oh skateboarding is gonna hear the kid from Superbad is gonna make some movie about skateboarding, it’s gonna be trash,'" he told me at the A24 offices last week. “And no one was more aware of that than me. Obviously, unless you were like Spike [Jonze] or a few other people you wouldn’t know how much this had affected my life because I didn’t go around repping skateboarding. I don’t feel it’s my place to.”
He was right to be nervous. Skateboarders are notoriously sensitive about how they’re shown on film thanks to decades of hamfisted portrayals that flatten skateboarding and skateboarders into ridiculous stereotypes. “The scariest screening we had was the Thrasher screening,” Hill said of the LA premiere last month done in partnership with the magazine. “And it was hard at first because, you know, [pro skater] Jason Dilland [skate filmmaker extraordinaire] Bill Strobeck, who are friends of mine, were openly talking the most shit. And that’s totally fair, you know, but it’s been amazing to have their support and actually show people the film. It’s some real Field of Dreams shit.”
Mid90s has drawn comparisons to Kids, and while it’s easy to see why—both movies are about skater kids with troubled lives trying to find their place in the world—the characters in Larry Clark’s film were hard-partying hellraisers who just happened to skate. For the kids in Hill's movie, skateboarding is their reason for existence, an all-encompassing obsession that drowns out everything else and serves as a release for all the fucked-up stuff happening elsewhere in their lives. “You know, so much of this movie is about how much these kids can’t articulate themselves,” Hill said. “They can’t talk about their feelings… and skating definitely becomes an outlet for that.”
One thing about skateboarders in the mid 90s—and really 90s kids in general—is that they used a lot of homophobic language. It was shown in Kids, highlighted in the scene where Casper and Telly and their friends scream slurs at two gay men walking through the park. The dialogue in Mid90s doesn’t try to bury that history, and as a result the conversations between the kids can seem jarring in 2018. Gay slurs are thrown around with reckless abandon at Motor Avenue, and at one point Stevie is told that saying "thank you" is gay. (He internalizes and worries over this until Ray gives him a skateboard and assures him that no, saying "thank you" is not gay, it’s just polite.)
“I made a choice very thoughtfully to show homophobia and misogyny as realistic as it was when I was growing up as a real point to hold a mirror up,” Hill said, “because I felt it was way more respectful than changing history.” The decision to show the culture with all its warts was one he discussed with his producer, Scott Rudin. At one point Hill had considered throwing in a scene where one of the characters calls out their friend’s language. “And Scott Rudin was like, ‘That is so offensive.’ He’s like ‘Did you guys do that?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ And he’s like, ‘Then that’s so offensive.’ So to me the more truthful you show something—even if it’s ugly—is the message.”
"If I fall on my face I at least made the exact kind of film that I stand behind 20 years from now.” –Jonah Hill
Skateboarding has long portrayed itself as an inclusive, progressive community with an anti-jock mentality. And while that’s in some ways true, it’s still an industry dominated by cis white dudes with a history of bigotry woven throughout it. When Brian Anderson came out in a 2016 VICE Sports documentary, he became the first openly gay professional skateboarder. In the doc he mentioned he had worried that coming out earlier might have hurt his career. For a supposedly artistic, forward-thinking culture there is still a lot of progress to be made in skating, and while the dialog in Mid90s was a throwback to a different time, it also served as a reminder of how far the industry still has to go.
At the end of the film Fourth Grade, the crew’s filmer, plugs his camera into a TV to show his friends what he’s been working on. Fourth Grade’s film takes over the screen as the credits roll, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was an actual skate shop video from the 90s. The shots of the kids skating, hanging at the shop, partying, and just generally living their lives was a pitch-perfect recreation of what every local skate crew in the 90s made with their pals, presumably Hill included. More than any other aspect of the film, this footage catapulted me back to my own childhood. It was obviously put together by someone who had a deep love and respect for skateboarding.
I asked Hill what it was like making his first film about something so close to his heart. “I looked at my heroes, like people like Mike Nichols or Barry Levinson or people like that who started out in comedy and had these very prolific filmmaking careers," he said. “And a thing I noticed—and through all the directors I worked with just as an actor, like heroes of mine, you know their first film—you only get one chance to make your first film. And I was like, well, if I really want this to be my career and I really want this to be my life I only get one chance to do this for the first time, so it’s gonna be something that matters to me. And that way if I fall on my face I at least made the exact kind of film that I stand behind 20 years from now.”
Mid90s is in theaters October 19.