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Skateboarding movies look as if they’ve absorbed the aesthetic of skateboarding itself: reckless, affectless, directionless and anaesthetised, the kind of activity where it’s important to mask pain if you fall heavily on the asphalt, though the pain is there. They have created a distinct style of their own over the years, since the mid-90s, in fact: a kind of indie-stonewashed, handheld moviemaking, lit as it were from the glow of a setting sun across an empty parking lot, and filmed as if by the participants themselves or by someone too old to be hanging out with them. For his debut movie as a writer-director, 35-year-old Jonah Hill has come up with an accomplished and watchable film in this style, nearly a pastiche, about a very male world as these films generally are (although Crystal Moselle’s recent Skate Kitchen challenged this stereotype).
It’s a coming-of-age film in its way. Stevie (played by Sunny Suljic) is a 12-year-old in 90s Los Angeles from an unhappy family. He lives with his single mom Dabney (Katherine Waterston) and his boorish elder brother Ian – an atypically brutish Lucas Hedges – who bullies Stevie with punches that Hill cranks up on the soundtrack so the impact sounds like a bone snapping.
One summer, Stevie finds himself hanging out at a skateboard shop with the kind of laid-back proto-hoodlums who are the stuff of his mother’s nightmares: Ruben (Gio Galicia), Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), Ray (Na-kel Smith) and Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin). Hill himself may identify with young Stevie, or perhaps with Fourth Grade who is forever filming everyone with his video camera and is shyly embarrassed about his own career hopes, modestly announcing he may just follow in his dad’s footsteps at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Hill shows how the skaters are to be Stevie’s alternative family, and when his charm and courageous skating cause him to be lavishly accepted by these cool kids five years older than he is, it causes sibling rivalry with Ruben, an envy made worse by his precocious sexual success with a much older girl (a wish-fulfilment scene that male directors often go in for). Ray is the group’s de facto leader, and when he appears to be disloyally drifting away from them for some older and yet cooler skaters, it creates something akin to a power vacuum, filled by Fuckshit, who masks his hurt feelings by drinking even more than usual, and is, worryingly, the group’s designated driver.
Mid90s is a film in two distinct traditions: there is the rhetoric of something like the mid-90s film Kids, directed by Larry Clark and written by Harmony Korine – Korine has a knowingly contrived cameo here – or Gus Van Sant films such as Paranoid Park or Elephant.
This is the less-than-zero world of young people operating outside parental supervision and at the margins of the law. Tellingly, there is a scene in which the group taunt a security guard, an authority figure who isn’t even a cop, but who gets in a few verbal licks of his own, jeering that Fuckshit looks like Sheryl Crow – although the skaters lack the irony gene that makes them seriously vulnerable to this kind of mockery.
Less obviously, and maybe even less consciously, Mid90s is part of another tradition leading from Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953) to Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) and beyond: the story of a bunch of young guys captured at a moment of intense friendship when youth is about to vanish for ever. Hill worked with Scorsese on The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and he puts GoodFellas (1990) on the TV in one scene here. He has a very Scorsesesque habit of showing us a group shot with a big juke-box slam on the soundtrack – in this case, the Mamas and the Papas’ version of Dedicated to the One I Love.
Hill is punctilious with earnestly observed retro detail, and sometimes this is a bit heavy-handed. Did Ian really have to wear a Bill Clinton fright mask? These are the moments when Mid90s starts to look like a film-school graduation project. An impressive one, though.
I enjoyed it more when Hill showed a lighter touch. At his 18th birthday celebration, Ian ostentatiously declines to thank Stevie for his present. Later, Ruben will tell Stevie it isn’t manly or cool to thank anyone for anything — a lesson poor Stevie accepts with saucer-eyed credulity, but which Ray will later tell him is complete nonsense. Of course he should thank people for the nice things they do. Almost by accident, Stevie is getting a kind of education.
Source: The Guardian
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