Jonah Hill’s debut film is a really soulful, special work, and one of the most evocative period pieces about growing up in the 90s that I’ve seen. Shot like a 90s indie film, with an almost-square frame ratio, it’s feels semi-autobiographical, and revolves around Stevie, a 13-year old boy growing up in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s. Stevie lives with his mother Dabney, played by Katherine Waterston, and his older brother Ian, played by Lucas Hedges, but spends most of his time skating with an older circle of friends, headed by Ray, played by Na-Kel Smith, and Fuckshit, played by Gio Galicia. While the film might start with a fetishistic perusal of 90s objects, it’s not really nostalgic in a straightforward sense, and often looks more like Kids, or Kevin Smith’s early films, than the airbrushed versions of the 90s that have become so prominent in recent popular culture, and in cinema and music in particular.
While Stevie is only loosely based on Hill, it’s still a bit of a revelation to see Hill’s avatar framed as such a quiet, muted and introspective character. Since Stevie doesn’t have much of a voice in his own home, and is younger than most of his skater friends, he tends to watch the world from the sidelines, giving the film an ambient and immersive style that’s quite intoxicating. That’s paired with a witty screenplay, and taste for baroque crudeness, that sometimes recalls Superbad, but the effect here is more melancholy and muffled than Superbad as well, reminding me of the final moments in the film where Jonah Hill and Michael Cera’s characters say goodbye to each other on the escalator at their local mall. With Stevie’s mother barely present, and his father totally absent, there are virtually no adults in the film, which immerses us so completely in Stevie’s world that this often feels more like a docudrama, or even a documentary, than a regular work of fiction. As some critics have noted, the script is a bit awkward at times, but when delivered through this documentary style it feels true to the awkwardness of adolescence, and to the halting, hesitant and provisional ways in which kids at this age start to make their way in the world.
Most of the film revolves around Los Angeles’ skating culture, and the awe and wonder that it generates in Stevie and his friends. While Hill nods in the direction of a whole lineage of skating films, from Spike Jonze to Gus Van Sant, his vision of skating is also totally his own, partly because of how eloquently he presents skating rinks as the apotheosis of public space in LA. He has a particular knack for depicting makeshift skating rinks, empty zones that are temporarily reclaimed as public space, and where a public sphere can hide in plain sight until the next police shutdown comes along. Throughout these scenes, the film’s fetishistic fixation with 90s ephemera converges on skateboards as well, presented here as the ultimate 90s object, tangible and material in a way that feels inextricably pre-digital, but also providing the rider with surreal trajectories into an as-yet unformulated digital future.
In particular, Hill seems interested in historicizing the skating film as a 90s artifact, and as a harbinger of the social media explosion in the early 00s. Much of the film feels drawn from indie skating films, while the characters are all interested in indie skating films, both shooting them and continually discussing scouts at skating rinks who are making them. The climax involves Ray leaving the group to appear in a professional skating release, while the film itself ends by condensing the narrative into a goofy, homemade, hand-held skating video that also plays as a series of outtakes, showing all the actors mucking around on skateboards between takes, practicing the impressive moves that ended up in the final cut.
These skating scenes really tap into the experience of being the last generation of high school students before high school was reshaped by social media. Like Hill, I was part of this generation, and I remember the sense of being on the cusp of a new world that hadn’t quite arrived yet – a world that was attuned to social media in so many ways, but didn’t quite have the social media technology needed to articulate itself. In retrospect, many venues and experiences in the mid-90s played as inchoate versions of social media, from video stores to shopping malls to the fifth generation of console gaming. In Hill’s vision, the skate park is one of these proto-social media – a space that is both precarious and networked, hyper-local but also potentially global, capable of interfacing onto the wider world at any moment.
For that reason, scouting is a big part of Hill’s film, both in terms of its production and content. On the one hand, Hill apparently visited multiple skate parks in LA to find his cast, looking for people who looked authentic and could authentically skate. On the other hand, the skating sequences in the film are continually contoured by the presence and awareness of scouts, and the scintillating possibility that skaters might go from anonymous to famous if they happen to sync into the right time and the right place. Watching it, I was reminded about how Larry Clark “discovered” Harmony Korine while shooting a scene for Kids at a New York skating venue, so it felt right that Korine is present in Hill’s film, but this time as a scout, rather than as a scouted skater. With Korine and Hill both playing the role of scouts, the film seems to suggest that this very process of scouting is now a thing of the past, and a distinctly 90s phenomenon, out of date now that digital space has trumped physical space.
As a proto-digital space, Hill’s skating rinks also generate a vast and complex musical texture. Much of this is anchored squarely in the 90s, with Del the Funky Homosapien making a cameo. However, Hill also realises that the 90s were more about 90s music, just as any decade is about more than the music produced in that decade. In his vision, the 90s are a time when the 60s, 70s and 80s – the tail end of the twentieth century – are still within recent living memory for most people, and it’s this broader vitality of the twentieth century, and the sense that it’s still alive as a space of musical possibility, that makes Hill’s version of the 90s so powerful. It’s also what allows him to differentiate the 90s so powerfully from the present moment, where the later part of the twentieth century has started to congeal into a series of nostalgic images that are increasingly untethered from any kind of collective lived experience. Time and again, Mid90s seems aware that the 90s themselves are on the verge of being congealed and packaged in this way too – on the cusp of being ossified into a solipsistic period, rather than being partly comprised by the residue of what preceded them.
That makes for a remarkably fugitive portrait of the 90s, as Hill tries to capture its molten position at the end of the twentieth century, while not ever condensing or compacting it to one thing. In that respect, Mid90s reminded me a lot of Mike Mills’ Twentieth Century Women, since both films offset any clear relation to the past by reminding us that what we think of the past is also someone else’s present or future, and every period is inherently discontinuous when experienced in real time, and on its own terms. In Hill’s soundscapes, the pervasive hip-hop beat provides that discontinuity, or semi-continuity, capturing an era that was at once inextricable from hip-hop, but in which most people who listened to hip-hop only had an oblique connection to the actual social conditions that produced it. The same goes for the word “faggot,” which is bandied around here as a peculiarly 90s insult, linked to hip-hop culture insofar as it is almost impossible to avoid as a teenager, even as it is only obliquely related to the actual values or belief of most of the teenagers who use it.
Both those traits are embodied by Ian, Stevie’s older brother, who’s the biggest hip-hop acolyte in the film, despite being white, and who is the most homophobic character in the film, despite appearing to be closeted himself. Both of those traits stagnate Ian, and motivate Stevie to do anything and everything to get away from the house. As a result, Mid90s tends to be most evocative in transit, when characters are only occupying a space provisionally, or when they are on their way from one point to another. That crystallises around skating, which becomes a line of flight from the 90s themselves, a way of glimpsing a future as an individual, but also a way of glimpsing a future collectively, a brief hint of a world in which a public sphere can operate despite the constrictions of the LA urban sprawl.
In the end, then, Mid90s is not really nostalgic so much as it is hypnotised by the past. One of the weird paradoxes of nostalgia is that we often yearn for the periods we most longed to escape, as if the prospect of escape were somehow more utopian than the escape itself. Something of that quality percolates into Stevie’s character, who grows more remote from Hill, as we now know him, as the film proceeds. The further his story moves towards the future, the more embedded it appears to be in the past, reminding me a bit of the sentiments in “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” a song in which Dylan recalls taking his last train trip with friends he would never see again once he became famous. In that song, too, the train trip that takes Dylan into the future embeds his friends even further in the past, until the song isn’t nostalgic so much as hypnotised by the different futures that they all envisaged.
In that sense, Mid90s is haunted by the future more than the past – the future that the 90s suggested to those who were growing up at the time. Looking back on that period, I’m hypnotised both by what came to pass and what didn’t come to pass, what we were right about, as adolescents, but also what we were wrong about. Hill’s film has a similar feeling, especially in its third act, which all but displaces Stevie from his own story, and segues into one evocative skating sequence after another. In the process, a collective line of flight emerges in and around skating that might liberate the characters, but might just as equally destroy them, culminating with a car accident that lands Stevie in hospital, but which also brings his friends into a new, if fleeting, proximity with each other too. Some critics called this cheesy or contrived, but I thought it worked beautifully to suggest how close Stevie had come to not surviving the vision of the future that preoccupied so much of the 90s. And that ability to survive the future inherent in the 90s is the real fixation of the fillm, which ends with Stevie just starting to glimpse the next decade, and the future far beyond that, even as this glimpse is what we now come back to, time and again, as Hill does so evocatively here.