Adidas Originals tread against the pavement as Wu-Tang Clan vibrates through the air. Kids on skateboards seemingly glide through a boundless boulevard, their silhouettes defined in the haze of the sunset. The courthouse looms over the concrete jungle, complete with the graffiti of its inhabitants. A routine exodus ensues at the mere mention of the "5-0.”
What follows is a blur of baggy jeans and frosted tips on wheels, a moment of chaos that 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) has only now discovered.
Jonah Hill’s writer-director debut, “Mid90s” captures the terrifying and exhilarating reality of growing up. Through an authentic look at a young boy struggling to find his place while navigating a chaotic home life, Hill establishes his first feature as a raw coming-of-age story which deserves recognition alongside A24's other works. Despite the movie’s title, Hill wanted to be clear that the story and the characters were put first, not the time period. In an interview for the Toronto International Film Festival, Hill emphasized that the references to nostalgia or skateboard culture have to be “respectful” and “textural” or they would not be included.
“The only reason to do it in the ‘90s is because we didn’t have cell phones,” Hill said in the interview. “These deep conversations come from boredom because we don’t have a gadget to rely on, so you’re sitting outside waiting for the bus and you have to talk to one another.”
The context of the ‘90s was less about the appeal to the recycled aesthetic and more about a story held during a time of more genuine connection.
“Today, the second things get emotionally uncomfortable or a connection begins to happen, [people] hop on Instagram and the moment’s over,” Hill said in his interview with TIFF. “The idea was that if, at the last minute, we decided to not call this film ‘Mid90s’ and put it in present day that it would still be a valid story.”
The run from the courthouse was just one of main character Stevie’s many firsts. As the younger kid in a group of teenagers, his exposure to the accessories of skate culture, including drugs and partying, was virtually inevitable. But the abruptness of growing up was nothing new to Stevie, who was used to being thrown against the wall by his older brother and listening to his mom muse about the strange man he bumped into on his way to the bathroom. On the streets of Los Angeles, with bloody falls and triumphant tricks, amongst swearing kids and all-nighters on concrete and to the soundtrack of the “Golden Era” of hip-hop, Stevie grew up.
The theme of authentic connection is seen through Stevie’s growing acceptance by the group of skater kids he comes to know as he struggles to learn how to skate. Through each of their distinct personalities, Ray (Na-Kel Smith), Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), Ruben (Gio Galicia) and F*cksh*t (Olan Prenatt) — so-called because of his incessant exclamations — guide Stevie, albeit not always in the right direction, as he learns about the world and himself. The most mature of the group, Ray, forms an especially close bond with Stevie as Ray recognizes a wounded boy underneath his unflinching facade. Through some of the film’s most well-crafted, poignant dialogue, Ray reaches out to Stevie about his feelings of isolation and shame to create a vulnerable scene which strengthens the core of the film.
As a part of the A24 college partnership program, the production company organized a conference call to connect members of the cast with its 10 university partners. On the call was Sunny Suljic (“Stevie”), Olan Prenatt (“F*cksh*t”), Ryder McLaughlin (“Fourth Grade”) and Gio Galicia (“Ruben”).
Overwhelmingly, it was evident that the authenticity of “Mid90s” was in large part a result of its featured actors. Other than a few small parts for Sunny Suljic, none of the other actors had acted in a film before. They were all experienced skaters. Hill admits that he hired Suljic on the spot after meeting him at the local skate park.
The young actors’ greatest collective exposure to the ‘90s didn’t exceed kindergarten. But they were able to successfully relate to and portray the essence of the era due to their director’s commitment to the ‘90s as he and many others knew it. This included the soundtrack which Hill claims is representative of his experience growing up in the middle of the 90s in Los Angeles. In an interview with writer Rembert Browne, Hill says he wrote much of the movie to songs. The fusion of hip-hop and punk, with Wu-Tang Clan’s “Tearz,” and tracks from A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde, the Pixies, and Nirvana, creates a feeling of nostalgia even for those born in the 21st century.
The cast of “Mid90s” made it clear that Hill’s dedication to authenticity went beyond attempts to censor problematic 1990s expression in the context of 2018.
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“There’s a lot of language and situations that people might think the movie is glorifying,” McLaughlin said. “But I think you really just need to see it from a realistic point of view. It’s just a movie showing how that culture was, showing it for what it [was], not making it PG and taking out certain things.”
Sunny added that the dialogue, which didn’t leave out any of the offensive language that was still pervasive during that time, was all scripted, based on Jonah Hill’s attempt to “hold a mirror up” rather than ignore the reality of the past.
“The speech, with the slurs and racism and everything, we really just wanted to compare that time with how things are today,” he said.
Along with gaining an appreciation for ‘90s skate culture, the young cast of “Mid90s” reflected on the more profound lessons they took away from the film.
“Through this whole filming process, I’ve learned perspectives on life that I didn’t know before,” Olan Prenatt said. “The film really taught me a lot of lessons about sensitivity, language, and respect for everybody, just more deeply.”
In its spectacular attention to detail and shameless portrait of unfiltered adolescence that lets each viewer in on a lesson they get to define themselves, “Mid90s” is a success for all, not just ‘90s kids.