Stevie functions as the audience surrogate into the LA skate scene. A quiet, friendless kid, Stevie lives with his mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston), a woman far too frank with her children about her romantic life, and brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), a shaven-headed, emotionally unstable teen who viciously beats Stevie when, in what is surely a regular occurrence, Stevie explores the various treasures in Ian’s room. Our lead is thirsty for male camaraderie and leadership, and he finds it in a crew hanging out in a skate shop. Led by the aspirational Ray (Na-Kel Smith) and complemented by the boisterous Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), the bashful Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), and the posturing Ruben (Gio Galicia), the crew welcomes Stevie, christening him as Sunburn. Time spent with his new friends means Stevie pushing back against Ian’s bullying and disregarding his mom’s rules, but the sense of belonging and reckless abandon that Stevie gets from the tradeoff sends him careening into adulthood, ill-prepared though he may be.
The dynamic within the group provides Stevie with opportunity for growth and destruction. Closest in age to Ruben, whose braggadocio is instantly transparent, Stevie’s presence provokes his peer to increasing levels of resentment and confrontation, a state that he’s well prepared for after Ian’s outbursts. Fuckshit’s hedonism introduces Stevie to the world of substance abuse and girls, a notable and uncomfortable development considering the extreme boyish appearance of Suljic. On the more positive side, Fourth Grade, so named for the extent of his education, is dedicated to his hobby of filmmaking and therefore avoids Fuckshit’s recklessness, but it’s Ray who most impresses and justifies his unofficial status as the group’s leader. He knows exactly what he wants out of his future i.e. to be a skate pro, and he has a plan to get there. Charismatic and emotionally charitable, he functions both as a complete character with his own methods and desires, but he’s also a worthy model for someone like Stevie who deeply desires the praise of someone like Ray. Smith, with no camera experience beyond skate videos, is the film’s greatest discovery, a young man who could be a star if that’s what he wanted.
No unsupervised gaggle of teens is going to stay upright and traditionally moral, and Hill, a person who knows something about raunchy comedy, gets varied mileage out of showing minors behaving badly. Their vocabulary is littered with profanity that’s period-appropriate in its rampant homophobia. Skateboarding is perhaps best known for when it goes badly, and Mid90s has plenty of wipeouts for the highlight reel that result in injuries that could have been far worse than they are. Where the film gets queasy is in taking Stevie to a sexually active place. At a party, a girl three or four years the prepubescent boy’s age guides him to the back room to fool around, and Stevie is so stricken by deer-in-the-headlights panic that he has to be guided each step of the way. On the one hand, this is arguably a rape scene, especially in contrast to a similarly staged scene in Bo Burnham’s fellow 2018 teen dramedy Eighth Grade. Stevie’s joking about the event after and the crew’s adulation of him seem to further absolve the scene of any perceived ickiness, but hanging over the whole thing is how all parties are pressured to ignore the emotional vagaries of this act in favor of the deed itself, stripped of all vulnerability and context. An argument could be made in either direction, and the scene adds a needed level of complexity.
Wherever the viewer lands on the most controversial scene in Mid90s, praise for Suljic and the rest of the young cast seems like it should be a given. The young actor is fully a child despite the adult proceedings of the film about him, and Suljic plays his as such, with all the openness and cheerfulness and gratitude of attention that goes with it. The battle of the film is whether or not these good qualities that Stevie so earnestly wears on his sleeve are going to persist as his circumstances change, or if he’s going to suppress them in favor of more negative traits. Suljic creates these emotional stakes and makes them worth holding on to while also communicating the allure of fitting in at the cost of those stakes. In addition to the aforementioned Smith, the supporting cast are all minimally credible as people in this world given their minimal experience. Galicia plays Ruben’s fears of being demoted within the group as stressful and scary for him, such that his lashing out doesn’t turn the viewer against him. Fuckshit as written would be intolerable if not for Prennan’s glad-handing magnanimity and McLaughlin’s Fourth Grade is swimming in needy pathos. Hedges, already Oscar-nominated at 22, shows a new side of his growing portfolio with Ian’s frustrated rage. With that haircut, he’s destined for an Ed Norton-style antihero role as a reformed skinhead.
While he constructed a lived-in script, ably assembled a cast of unknowns, and does excellent work in static observational skating shots with DP Christopher Blauvelt, Hill is not yet the total creative package based on Mid90s. The frame is compressed for reasons unknown, lacking even the vague symbolic rationalizations in movies like Mommy or First Reformed. Over-the-top theatrics in the third act are out of a student film with their strobe effects and pretentious muting, while the ramifications of late developments are wholly out of character on multiple fronts. This is a naturalistic work for much of its runtime, but Hill doesn’t trust the preceding 70 minutes of filming to let that same visual tone carry through to the end. While Mid90s leaves the viewer with the taste of a film that tripped in the final stretch, that doesn’t erase the strengths of what came before. Hill will surely get another shot at directing, and Mid90s provides him with a solid foundation to build upon. B