By Brandon Konecny.
“My visceral reaction when I hear someone is making a movie about skateboarding is…I wish they [sic] wouldn’t,” says professional skateboarder Rodney Mullen. And his remarks are understandable. Aside from maybe Larry Clark’s Kids (1995), skateboarding has never fared well in narrative cinema, usually serving as an exotic object for middle-class audience’s ogling or an otiose element in a lame commercial plot. Typically, the only redeeming qualities of those films are the cool skate footage (Jonathan Velasquez kickflips a big set of stairs in Clark’s disappointing Wassup Rockers! ), sparse cameos (pro skater Tony Alva plays a menacing skate gangster in David Winters’s Thrashin’ ), and soundtracks (Catherine Hardwicke’s Lords of Dogtown  has a songs by the Weirdos and Black Flag). But these films are never able to coordinate all these things well. It’s as though these filmmakers were trying to reverse engineer a deceased grandparent’s unwritten recipe from memory: the measurements are never right and the dish ends up tasting terrible.
But Jonah Hill seems to come the closest to getting this balance of these elements correct in his feature-film debut, Mid90s (2018). In this film, the audience gets the killer shots of 360 flips and backside nose slides, all captured on crisp 16 mm film. They get the cameos of filmmaker Harmony Korine and master of skateboarding tomfoolery Gary Rogers. They get the soundtrack featuring 90s hip hop and hardcore punk rock. They even get a healthful dose of 1990s nostalgia. But more important, they get a sincere, though not always flattering, portrait of skateboarding and what it means to the film’s characters, evoking toward the sport both admiration and condemnation for the sins it’s since tried to jettison.
The film concerns Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a 13-year-old who looks as if he’s eight. His youthful appearance makes watching the physical abuse he receives from his brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) all the more intolerable. His single mother (Katherine Waterson) is loving but more or less ineffectual at keeping order in the home, and viewers get the sense she’s lived a more troubled youth than her kids have. Apart from his mom, Stevie doesn’t have any friends and spends most of his time reading comics and listening to his mom and Ian fighting in nearby rooms. Nothing seems to inspire him until he sees four baggily attired teenagers hassling a clerk who’s trying to shew them away from his store front – and they’re riding skateboards. He follows them into a local skate shop and instantly takes a liking to them and begins trying to get them to notice him.
And they do notice of him. The skaters, the Ray (real-life professional skateboarder Na-Kel Smith), the taciturn Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), F*cksh*t (Olan Prenatt), and Ruben (Gio Galicia), soon welcome him into their milieu and take him to skate spots and let him hang out with them at the skate shop. Neither Stevie’s mom nor Ian are thrilled about Stevie’s new friends, with their abrasive appearance and hip hop-inspired repartee. But despite their objections, Stevie is unwilling to give up his new set of friends. In this way, Sunny is subject to contrary forces in his life, one (his new friends) that invites adventure, the other (his mom and brother) that sees his new hobby and friends as a waste of time and a bad influence.
One of the film’s chief successes is how Hill sets up similar conflicting forces in the film’s presentation of skateboarding. He displays some of the positive impact of the sport (there’s doubtless some skate maven who read the preceding clause and winced at my calling skateboarding a sport), such as its ability to inspire a large degree of dedication in Stevie and his friends that seems at odds with their slacker behavior. Audiences see, for instance, how Stevie, who once lacked much animation to do anything besides lounge around his house, now spends hours each night sedulously practicing skateboarding. And when he finally lands a half-an-inch-high ollie, he stomps around his driveway and announces his triumph to nothing but the open air and suburban night sky. Audiences also see Ray, the film’s most sagacious characters, dedicate himself wholeheartedly to skating in hopes of becoming a professional skater, even when that means forgoing excessive drug use and drinking.
But these positive aspects exist uncomfortably alongside some of the negativity the skaters introduce Stevie to. They bring him into a world of underage drinking, cigarettes, trespassing on private property, abuse of prescription drugs, sex, and partying, and Stevie indulges in them happily. Audiences also see how the group bandies about sexist and homophobic remarks in front of Stevie, and the effect of this behavior is clearly discernable. It blunts Stevie’s and his friends’ ability to sincerely communicate with each other, as where Stevie is reluctant to thank Ray for giving him a free skate deck in fear of coming off “gay.” All this may have seemed innocent enough to the characters back then, but they’re difficult to see in anything other than a negative light now.
This was an unfortunate dimension of the skateboarding scene in the 1990s, though it’s since gotten better thanks to skaters such as Ed Templeton, Lacey Baker, and Brian Anderson and the influence of their progressive, gay-positive politics on the skateboarding subculture. Hill puts all of this starkly on display, but not in the same way Kids does. Hill isn’t trying to make a morality tale or to inspire in his audience a generalized disgust toward these characters and their behaviors. Rather, he’s trying to show how these sexist and homophobic statements circulated in the scene. It’s left to audiences to see that such comments harm both the groups they disparage and the characters who utter them.
Besides the film’s occasional imperfections, such as its loose structure and rather unbelievable conclusion, Mid90s is well worth people’s time, especially for those who are a part or have been a part of skateboarding. It provides an opportunity to reflect on a subculture and a time that meant so much to its participants, before skateboarding was an Olympic sport or the target of Nike’s sponsorial pursuits. It was a time when skateboarding was trying to figure out what it wanted to be, as this film’s characters were, and sometimes that indecision generated the sport’s greatest boasts and its more embarrassing misdeeds. It occasions one of the few moments in which, after hearing that someone made a narrative film skateboarding, skaters can say I’m glad he or she did.
Brandon Konecny is a regular contributor to Film International and an attorney. His work has appeared in Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, The Enquirer-Journal, NCCU Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Law Review, Journal of Fandom Studies, Journal of Religion and Film, Film Matters, and Jurnal de Chișinău.