The Reel Deal: Jonah Hill’s seminal skateboarding coming-of-age story ‘Mid90s’ pays tribute to a simpler time
By Madison Rutherford, Guest Writer, College Times editor
The mid-1990s were a pivotal time for skateboarding. Street skating was just starting to move into the mainstream, iconic Spike Jonze videos like Mouse and Video Days were inspiring a new generation of young skaters and the L.A. Courthouse was a gritty, illegal skate mecca.
Four years ago, Jonah Hill started writing the script for a movie about growing up during this golden era, aptly titled Mid90s. Because he’s known for his comedic acting roles in early-aught classics like Accepted and Superbad, Hill’s directing chops and knowledge of skateboarding were both called into question. But his directorial debut, which hit theaters on October 26, is an earnest portrayal of pre-Millennium skate culture in Southern California. More importantly, it’s a poignant coming-of-age tale about a wide-eyed kid trying to find his place in the world. It’s an important story that will ring true for anyone who’s ever craved a sense of belonging, even if they’ve never set foot on a skateboard.
The story is brought to life by the film’s young cast of real-life skaters, Ryder McLaughlin, Olan Prenatt and Na-kel Smith, who are members of L.A.-based skate collective Illegal Civilization; the film’s precocious protagonist, Sunny Soljic, who at only 13 years old, has already been skating for nearly a decade; and Gio Galicia, who was scouted for the film at L.A.’s famed Stoner Skate Plaza.
The kids portray a motley crew of rebellious misfits from broken homes that spend their days scoping spots and hanging out at the local skate shop, Motor Avenue. Stevie (Suljic) is seeking solace from his tumultuous home life, which includes the absence of his father, an abusive older brother and aloof single mother. Suljic says an underlying theme of the film explores Stevie’s desire to find a family outside of his home. “He’s just trying to find friends that are cool and supportive,” he explains.
Those friends come in the form of Ray (Smith), the skate squad’s de facto authority figure with aspirations of going pro, charming but aimless F*cksh*t, so called for the characteristic expletives he shouts when someone lands a difficult trick, quiet filmer Fourth Grade (McLaughlin), nicknamed for his grade-school IQ, and try-hard tagalong, Ruben (Galicia). Stevie pines for the camaraderie and “cool factor” the skate crew possesses and they quickly take him under their wing, showing him the ropes of skating and the rough-and-tumble lifestyle that comes with it. Stevie then embarks on a series of firsts — cigarettes, swigs of malt liquor and awkward sexual encounters — that draw close comparisons to Larry Clark’s harrowing 1995 film Kids. Both paint an unflinchingly realistic portrait of how the often recklessly hedonistic impulses of young skateboarders can spiral out of control.
With the exception of Suljic, who proved his acting prowess in The House with a Clock in Its Walls and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, none of the main characters had any previous acting experience. Authenticity was one of Hill’s biggest priorities throughout the film; he thought coaching seasoned skateboarders how to memorize a script would feel more real than teaching actors how to heelflip.
“You have to be such a talented director to do that,” Suljic says. “Casting everybody that has never acted before and making it look so real and feel so natural, like they were professional actors, you have to be so talented to do that. The script was super well-written and Jonah is just a really, really good director.”
Though it’s easy to forget that they’re acting at all, Prenatt says it was a challenge for them to adopt a different persona.
“My approach to acting, since it’s my first time, is just try as hard as possible to present yourself as an actor and my character was the exact opposite, which is ‘Don’t try hard. Trying hard is corny,’” he says. “It was very hard to have two states of mind.”
It wasn’t hard to fake the funk, however, when it came to the boys’ familial bond. McLaughlin, Prenatt and Smith already knew each other through Illegal Civ and instantly bonded with Galicia and Suljic. “We’re all friends. Throughout that whole process, everybody got a lot closer through filming and being around each other all day,” McLaughlin says.
The boys agree that not only is a skateboard a bonding tool, but a form of therapy. “You forget about everything else you’re doing and you’re not really under any restrictions,” Suljic says.
Prenatt also finds it important to mention the skate scene’s non-discriminatory characteristics: “Skateboarding is what it is in the movie, which is a community of no-judgment.”
It’s also a community that can be fiercely protective of its portrayal in the media. There are more than a handful of stereotypical skate films that are hollow and ham-handed, but Mid90s never feels overwrought or one-dimensional.
“There’s not one thing that was misrepresented in skateboarding through this film,” Prenatt says.
That sentiment of authenticity is present in all parts of the movie, from the soundtrack to the clothes to the dialogue. The beginning of the movie subtly creates a sense of time, as it follows Stevie — clad in an era-appropriate Street Fighter II shirt — as he sneaks into his brother’s room to snoop through his CD collection, which is rife with titles from Eric B. & Rakim, E-40 and Gang Starr. The first few minutes of the film are a hypnotizing sequence of ‘90s nostalgia, while the rest of the movie feels like a vivid flashback hand-plucked from a film reel of real memories. The characters will linger in audiences’ minds long after the credits roll.
The film was scored by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose band, Nine Inch Nails, rose to prominence in the mid-‘90s. The soundtrack, which includes decade-defining tracks from A Tribe Called Quest, LL Cool J and Wu-Tang Clan, are an homage to Hill’s affinity for ‘90s hip-hop — which served as the soundtrack for his own adolescence.
Each character’s style looks like they walked right off the page of an issue of now defunct skateboard magazine Big Brother in 1995. Ray, F*cksh*t, Stevie, Ruben and Fourth Grade all rock branded beanies, baggy pants, puffy shoes and oversized T-shirts. Both ‘90s kids and skate buffs will recognize old-school logos from iconic brands like Blind, Chocolate, Girl, Droors (Now DC) and Shorty’s. Of course, it helped that the film’s wardrobe supervisor was illustrious professional skater Jerry Hsu’s wife, Katina Danabassis.
To further set the scene, Hill doled out a playlist of music from the mid-‘90s and wouldn’t allow the actors to use their phones on set.
“He made us leave our phones in our trailers, so even during breaks and when cameras were being set up, we would just have to stay in that world,” McLaughlin says. “I think that really helped all of us connect and create that bond and just put us in that period without technology where we can’t get distracted.”
The majority of the stars in Mid90s weren’t alive during a time that wasn’t ruled by technology. Prenatt insists, however, that the movie is made up of universal truths and lessons that transcend time and place.
“I feel like this is a very universal movie for every single person on this planet and it’s shown through skateboarding,” he says. “This is literally a movie about life. It’s something that every single human goes through. There are so many lessons in life and there are so many lessons that get shown through the movie.”
And though skateboarding is a prominent part of the movie, it ultimately serves as a symbol for the greater picture.
“The movie teaches more than just one lesson… and it’s not just for skaters, it’s for the whole community,” Galicia adds.