I might be turning thirty at the end of this year, but one thing that I don’t think will ever change is the love that I have for coming-of-age stories. Whether in TV, film or literature, there is something about seeing those tumultuous, turbulent stages of a person’s life unfold that always manages to capture my imagination. Perhaps it’s down to the simple fact that if you are a late twenty something watching such a film, you have already been through it and come out on the other side, and can look back with a knowing survivors instinct! Whatever the reason may be, it’s fair to say that I was very much looking forward to Mid90s.
Set amidst the burgeoning skateboard and hip-hop crossover culture of 1990s Los Angeles, the film tells the story of Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a thirteen year old latchkey kid who finds friendship with a group of mostly older teenage skateboarders. Struggling with a well meaning but inattentive mother (played by Katherine Waterston) and a borderline psychotic older bully brother (played by Lucas Hedges), Sunny (newly nicknamed Sunburn) finds solace and companionship in his new social circle, embarking on a whole new set of life experiences, some of which he is ready for, some of which he is not.
It isn’t a perfect film by any means, but I have to say there is something about Mid90s that I found to be really affecting, engaging and massively enjoyable even at its toughest points. The story told isn’t a sugar coated one, and even though much of the narrative is presented from the perspective of a curious young guy exhilarated by his newfound freedoms, it is punctuated by some really alarming and poignant moments that shake the viewer out of the nostalgic 90s haze that the aesthetic and musical choices evoke. For a film less then ninety minutes in length, Mid90s manages to effectively cover everything from loneliness to homelessness to self harm to drug abuse to matters of sexual consent, packing the plot in full throttle but never feeling like it has lost control of the wheel.
There is an almost Lost Boys type feel about the central group of characters, not in the cool 80s vampire sense, but in the more traditional Peter Pan sense. A mixture of good influences and bad, strong personalities and wallflowers, varying degrees of privilege and poverty at different ends of the spectrum. With eccentric nicknames like Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) and Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), the gang are caring and problematic in equal measure, and there is something really authentic feeling in the way that the story unfolds despite hitting many of the traditional coming-of-age beats. The film doesn’t necessarily present anything that you haven’t seen before in these kinds of narratives, but just like a good musical or a good comedy, when those beats are executed brilliantly, they can sometimes feel completely fresh and brand new.
As Stevie, Sunny Suljic does a really incredible job of carrying the weight of the film at such a young age. Playing thirteen on screen but closer to eleven during filming, it might actually rank as one of the best child performances I’ve seen for a number of years. Stevie’s diminutive stature when compared to his older friends only helps to further enhance the alarming and uncomfortable nature of many of his actions, and Suljic really does feel like perfect casting. He evokes a faultless combination of impressionable and adventurous, but with a deep well of self awareness and sadness inside that works a stark reminder for adult viewers who may have forgotten what it’s really like to be a teenager.
Katherine Waterston and Lucas Hedges give very different types of performances as Stevie’s mother and brother respectively, but both succeed in adding that layer of nuance and melancholy to the protagonist’s home life. As mother Dabney, Waterston is a caring presence when on screen, the problem being that she isn’t on screen that much, reflecting just how much freedom Stevie has to be influenced by his older companions. Lucas Hedges continues his A24 partnership streak with a really upsetting and layered portrayal of older brother Ian. At first glimpse he is just a cliche bully beating on a smaller target, but as the narrative progresses both the audience and Stevie come to see that there is something much sadder and more desperate going on underneath.
From what I can tell, a mixture of unknowns and real skaters make up the cast of Stevie’s new Lost Boy friends. Gio Galicia, Na-Kel Smith, Olan Prenatt and Ryder McLaughlin are all solid and natural in their roles, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Sunny Suljic outshines them all, so clearly the far more accomplished actor despite his young age. What is most important is that there is a real feeling of chemistry between the actors, all of the ups and downs of a friendship group so dictated by testosterone levels.
Overall, Mid90s is one of those satisfying occasions when a film is just as good as I wanted and expected it to be, perhaps even more so. The circumstances of the plot might not pertain to your own teenage years, but the themes and feelings are, and will always continue to be, inescapably universal. It might not soar to the bittersweet heights of something like The Florida Project, or fall to the crushingly desolate lows of something like Kids, but Mids90s sits in the middle of that kind of esteemed coming-of-age company with ease. A really, truly impressive directorial debut for Jonah Hill, not to mention the script is his own as well. I can already confidently state that I prefer him behind the camera than in front of it.