On the surface, aside from a brief shot of someone watching Goodfellas on a TV, there’s nothing remotely Scorsesean about Jonah Hill’s Los Angeles–set coming-of-age skater drama Mid90s. (Bear with me, I’m going somewhere with this.) The austere style, the oblique plotting, the understated performances — this isn’t exactly Mean Streets we’re talking about here. But look a bit deeper and you might notice this: Mid90s, when you get right down to it, is about our ability to take abuse — physically, mentally, emotionally. It follows a boy who, as one character puts it, “literally takes the hardest hits out of anybody I’ve seen in my entire life.”
The idea of bodily mortification — through rage, through shame, through hedonism — runs through many of Scorsese’s films, most notably Raging Bull and The Wolf of Wall Street (which co-starred Hill). On that level at least, one suspects the actor, making his directorial debut, has learned his lessons well. He starts things off with a flurry of disturbing slams and punches, as we watch little Stevie (Sunny Suljic) being chased down and pummeled by his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) at home.
The dynamic between Stevie and his older brother is a complicated one. The strapping Ian has all the features of a bully, but Hedges plays him with a pained grimace and a shivery vulnerability that makes us wonder what’s really going on inside. The kid seems like he might break into tears at any moment. (Later, he does.) Meanwhile, Stevie looks to sneak into Ian’s room whenever he can. It’s a well-organized oasis of hats, sneakers, CDs, posters — a dream vision of growing up cool.
Stevie’s search for belonging leads him to a group of smack-talking older kids who like to hang out at a local skate shop. But there, too, the hits come quickly: These boys like to sling barbs at one another, and Stevie distinguishes himself with his willingness to take dives and go hard. You can draw a pretty clear line from the pummeling he gets at home to the falls he willingly takes on the concrete, as if he’s turned his greatest weakness into a newfound strength. This is a community where hardness is everything, which perhaps the world outside as well. (The film is filled with bits of dialogue that underscore this idea: “I always have to remember to hit pause when I start to feel something.” “Don’t fucking thank people. They’ll think you’re gay.”)
Hill portrays these kids with a weird mixture of affection and distance, and there’s a hazy nostalgia to their interactions and milieu. And while the film’s aforementioned fondness for brutality runs somewhat counter to this prevailing mood of understated, drifty languor, that tension also lends it an interesting rhythm, as if every little punch and blow and insult is a little rip in the movie’s cosmos.
Anyway, all that constitutes the good news. The not-so-good news is that Mid90s never quite manages to make an impact, in part because it gives us so little to hang onto with the characters onscreen. These skaters don’t really come through as three-dimensional people. They certainly have their traits: Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) is a zonked out, foul-mouthed screw-up; Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) is the quiet, awkward one who’s always filming; Ray (Na-Kel Smith) is the oldest and wisest and the best skater, with vague dreams of going pro. But characters need more than traits.
Modesty can be a virtue in coming-of-age tales — the temptation to lean toward melodrama, or to a more strident brand of nostalgia, can be overwhelming — but the shapeless, uneventful nature of Mid90s often flirts with tedium. We may wonder why exactly we’re watching these people. (That it comes out in a year when we’ve already had Skate Kitchen and Minding the Gap, two excellent, complex films about skate culture, certainly doesn’t work in its favor.) It’s a hang-out movie, but we’re never entirely sure why we’re hanging out with any of these people.
In part, this might be because Stevie himself so rarely comes into focus. That, at least, is somewhat understandable. He’s still a child, still in the process of becoming, looking for an identity. And like so many other kids, he perhaps finds his sense of self by striking the attitudes and adopting the clothes and music of those around him. The film, in that sense, reflects its protagonist: It’s a collection of postures, moods, and music cues, looking for a reason to exist.
Is that a knock? Maybe, maybe not. Hill may not yet have the chops to pull off that level of formalism. (Gus Van Sant, who directed him in this year’s earlier Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, nailed this approach in his skater masterpiece, Paranoid Park.) But it’s fascinating and, frankly, encouraging that he even tried to go in this direction, instead of trying simpler, clearer, or more manipulative. And as a director, he displays enough deftness of style, particularly with some of his editing choices, to keep us curious, if not exactly excited. Mid90s doesn’t entirely work, but it shows some promise, and even some guts.