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TV/Film Reel Talk: Skate culture and boyhood in “Mid90s”

Nov. 7, 2018
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Does it pass the Bechdel test*? No.

*The Bechdel test is a simple test which names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it (2) who talk to each other about (3) something besides a man. The test doesn’t determine how good or valuable a movie is; however, it’s a valid implication of the lack of women on screen. Being aware is the first step towards change. 

Overview

“Mid90s,” set in 1990s Los Angeles, is Jonah Hill’s feature film debut as a writer and director. Starring Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges and Katherine Waterston, the movie follows a 13-year-old boy who begins hanging out with an older group of skateboarders. 

“Mid90s” was shot on 16mm film in a 4:3 aspect ratio to resemble the look and feel of raw skating footage. At first glance, the film seems to only portray skate culture, a subculture which has been commercialized—especially as of late due to the increasing popularity of streetwear and skate apparel. The film’s wardrobe is reminiscent of Los Angeles ‘90s skatewear: baggy jeans, worn and slouchy t-shirts, and brands like Champion, Vans, Droors Clothing, and Adidas. Despite our current interest in skate culture and clothing, the film doesn’t try to manipulate this factor to attract our attention. In a conversation with Film School Rejects about the nostalgia portrayed in his period film, Jonah Hill explained, “The rules of the film were no skate porn and no nostalgia porn. I hate nostalgia porn. I didn’t want it to be that ’90s movie. To me, the idea was if at the last second, if you took it out of the ‘90s, it just would work anyway. Nothing was overt.” 

The film’s costume designer is Heidi Bivens, who met Hill at a show in Los Angeles three years before the film went into production. After talking about “Mid90s” with Hill, Bivens was invited to be a part of it. "The whole idea was that everything would be subtle," she explained to Fashionista. "All of the wardrobe cues...would be subtle in a way that wouldn't call your attention to it."

If we only looked at Mid90s as an ode to skate culture or as a coming-of-age movie, we’d miss the other messages. 

Characterization is possibly one of the actor-turned-director’s most successful achievements in his film debut. From beginning to end, “Mid90s” delves into the problematic toxic masculinity within teenage boys. The peer pressure to be cool manifests in numerous ways, from reckless behavior, to enacting violence, to treating everybody with no respect. 

Hill forces us to sympathize with the boys at certain moments, but he also doesn’t shy away from portraying them in a more crude nature. If watching a 13-year-old use profanity and engage in underage drinking and sex isn’t something you can grapple with, then this might not be a movie for you. However, if you can get past that, the stories which unfold in this movie are poignant. “I love all the characters I create from the bottom of my heart,” said Jonah Hill in an interview with /Film. “I hope to always get to create complex, interesting characters.” 

Underage subject matter

Notably, Hill took the risk of portraying underage drinking and sex in exploring boyhood. We’re talking about a 13-year-old boy being peer-pressured to frequently endure uncomfortable situations. At one point while watching, I realized that situations like these do happen—and they happen every day. For a brief moment, this thought made me uncomfortable. But I quickly remembered that this boy lacks a father figure and is growing up desperately trying to figure himself out. His skate friends, despite their recklessness, are a symbol for family and protection.

Skate culture

Hill explores skate culture with sincerity and rawness. He doesn’t glamorize the culture by characterizing “cool kids” who skate because they have nothing better to do with their lives. Not only is the cast comprised of actual skaters, but the sport—skateboarding—eventually comes to represent larger thematic ideas of dreams and identity. One line which stuck with me throughout the film was something said by Fuckshit, played by Olan Prenatt: “That’s why we ride a piece of wood—[because of] what that [can do] to somebody’s spirit.” A piece of wood here, according to Fuckshit, is a symbol for being alive and why life matters. 

The boys in the film are often taken lightly by adults and authoritative figures because they’re viewed as unambitious. This stereotypical perception of skate culture, however, is debunked by Hill’s nuanced portrayal of the boys’ personal relations, hopes, and dreams. Like when Ray (Na-kel Smith) displays his soft side by comforting Stevie, when Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) proves to be a promising filmmaker, or when Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) explains how much skating means to him.

“Mid90s,” like many other A24-produced films, isn’t supposed to be an easy watch. The film explores violence and underage substance use, even exposing upsetting subject matter like a near rape scene. As the journey unfolds, other domestic and societal issues interlink to further complicate the coming-of-age process. In this movie, we’re seeing just that—the flawed character of Stevie who is trying to grow up while exploring a subculture, searching for a safe haven.