It is sometimes hard to separate the art from the artist, such as trying to evaluate the work of filmmakers in the context of personal indiscretions, professional misconduct or behaviours that reflect an attitude of disregard for others that is often driven by an elevated sense of self-importance. With a history for treating journalists and members of the media industry with arrogant indifference and disrespect, including the use of homophobic slurs, Jonah Hill has demonstrated a distinct lack of humility that seems to diminish further as his star rises within the elevated atmosphere of Hollywood. One can only imagine how any positive notices of his directorial debut might serve to further inflame an already raging ego, or how any less-than-enthusiastic responses might send him into one of the petulant sulks for which he is renowned. So, in light of all that, the challenge in evaluating Mid 90s is to try and cast aside what we know about the man at the helm and deliver an objective assessment of what transpires on screen.
Much of Mid 90s reads like a West Coast version of Larry Clark’s Kids, the New York-set drama that followed a group of street kids through the course of their daily, and nightly, experimentations in booze, drugs and sex amidst the rising AIDS epidemic that engulfed the city. Their escapades, which are fuelled largely by boredom, misogyny and a lack of any parental oversight, ultimately result in a tragic outcome for one young girl, whose plight engenders little sympathy from the person responsible. The girls of Mid 90s are not treated particularly well either, however Hill has taken a much less provocative approach in his examination of the plight of young people for whom skateboarding serves as an escape from the entrenched poverty and/or domestic hardship in which they find themselves. Whereas sex is the shared obsession of the young men in Kids, it is skating through which the boys of Mid 90s connect. Central to the story is Stevie (Sonny Suljic), a 13-year-old who finds himself drawn to a group of older skaters who welcome him into their fold despite the fact that he can’t really skate.
For Stevie, this newfound friendship brings him relief from life at home with his mother Dabney (Katherine Waterson) and abusive older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). In fact, much of the motivation for Stevie befriending the group seems to be a conscious desire to avoid ending up like Ian, who is seemingly devoid of any friends and perpetually angry as a result, although we can never be sure about what motivates his antagonism because neither he nor Dabney are fleshed out in any depth, wasting the talents of both actors. Obviously girls, booze and drugs are part of the equation, but they serve simply to pass the time until the group can go skating again. Closely paralleling the misogynistic post-coital braggadocio of Kids, a sexual liaison with a girl at a party results in Stevie regaling his friends with the specifics of what took place, with no regard for the impact his words might have on the young woman.
Just as Kids set Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson on the path to success, Mid 90s might deliver a similar career kick-start for the young ensemble Hill has gathered, with Na-kel Smith particularly impressive as Ray, the oldest in the group who sees skateboarding as much more than something to kill time. For Ray, skating is a potential pathway to success and a better life, but he is conflicted about how these opportunities might (necessarily) alienate him from his friends, particularly his best mate Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), who has no ambition whatsoever. Described by Ray has the poorest person he has ever seen, Fourth Grade (Ryder McLauglin) is an aspiring filmmaker, while Ruben (Gio Galicia) harbors a growing resentment towards Stevie for the attention he gets from Ray and the others. Most of what transpires here seems very real and the behaviour of these characters is very typical of how young men often behave. Despite adopting a somewhat patronising tone at times, Hill, who also wrote the screenplay, has thankfully refrained from offering up any answers with regard to what the future holds for the group, which allows the optimistic amongst the viewership to imagine that everything works out okay, even if that seems highly unlikely. Certainly not as impactful as Clark’s searing masterwork, Mid 90s is nonetheless, like Sean Baker’s Tangerine, an interesting exploration of a Los Angeles far removed from the glossy gleam of travel brochures and celebrity culture that masks the grim reality for so many in the city.