Skateboard Thieves: ‘Mid90s’ is Los Angeles Neorealism at its Finest
I confess. I used to hate watch Jonah Hill movies. I always viewed him as an insecure asshole who made juvenile jokes to compensate for his lack of masculinity. Hiding behind humor is so common in Hollywood it’s cliché. Good-looking actors are leading men. If you’re physically fit, you become an action star. The fat and ugly provide the laughs. But Hill annoyed me more than most funnymen. His smug smirk made me despise him in the way I usually reserved for Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, and Pauly Shore. Over the years, though, I’ve grown to respect and, dare I say, like Jonah Hill. That’s because I began to see him for what he really is: a true artist. He takes filmmaking seriously and has turned himself into his generation’s Stanley Tucci — an outstanding supporting actor with a knack for accepting challenging roles. Films as varied as Cyrus (2010), Moneyball (2011), and Wolf of Wall Street (2013) are a testament to his acting abilities.
Hill’s artistic growth continues in Mid90s, but this time he’s behind the camera making his directorial debut from a script he wrote. Given his resume as an actor and his taste for raunchy humor, the last thing I expected from him was an updated version of an Italian neorealist movie, but that’s what Hill delivers.
The Italian neorealism film movement emerged in Italy after the carnage of World War Two. Its movies were filmed on location, usually in rundown cities where mostly nonprofessional actors dramatized the economic and moral hardships of the time. The characters were poor, lower-working class people struggling to survive. Their social order was simple but their lives were difficult. Children featured prominently in these movies. This allowed audiences to observe a harsh world through innocent eyes. Filmmakers demonstrated how cruel the world really was by showing mundane activities set against a backdrop of oppression, poverty, injustice, and desperation. Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (1948) is the best known, most heart-wrenching example of the movement.
Amazingly, Jonah Hill’s Mid90s modernizes every defining characteristic of Italian neorealism. But instead of post-war Italy, Hill sets Mid90s in the trash-strewn Palms neighborhood of Los Angeles right after the first Gulf War. He focuses on an ethnically diverse group of working class skater punks — gawky teenage outsiders who are trying to navigate the looming reality of adulthood. Some are so poor, their parents can barely afford to buy them socks. We gain entry into this subculture through Stevie, a pint-sized wannabe skater. Stevie, convincingly played by Sunny Suljic, functions as a proxy for us. He serves as our eyes and ears. Barely thirteen, he’s at that cute age before boys become dicks, as one female character astutely observes. Then we watch him cross the Rubicon into full teenage dickhood. It’s a dispiriting transformation. The triumph of Mid90s is how Hill draws such convincing performances out of his cast, especially considering that many of them weren’t professional actors. Everyone is so relaxed all their joking around rings true. It helps that every skateboarder is actually a skater in real life. Best among the group is Na-Kel Smith who plays Ray, a skater so cool and goddamn good on his board he doesn’t need a defining nickname like Sunburn or Fuck-Shit. Smith’s performance is off the charts charismatic and anchors the movie.
But the most impressive revelation in Mid90s is Hill’s confidence as a director. He lets scenes unfold naturally, without any fuss or bombast. He displays a remarkable level of restraint that evokes the Clint Eastwood and Kenneth Lonergan style of directing instead of the masturbatory excesses of a Wes Anderson, Damien Chazelle, or Zack Snyder. His camera wanders, but not excessively, and many times he locks it down and just lets his cast act intuitively. While skateboarding is the center of gravity that binds the group together, skating is not the focus of the film the way it is in Lords of Dogtown (2005) and the documentary on which Lords was based, Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001). Hill’s ballsy faith in himself also shows in his decision to shoot the movie with 16mm film using the old school 4:3 (or 1.33) aspect ratio. The squarer aspect ratio, combined with slightly muted colors, gives the movie a documentary feel that harkens back to its neorealist roots. It also mimics the standard definition video cameras and televisions of the 1990s. More importantly, though, the narrower screen keeps the actors and action confined to a smaller space. This in turn creates greater intimacy with the characters and their emotions and makes us feel like we’re really part of their world.
Mid90s isn’t a movie showcasing stunning visuals, clever camera shots, or even jaw-dropping skater tricks. It’s is a small coming-of-age story about troubled kids with wounded souls. It’s not revolutionary, nor is it meant to be. Rather, it follows in the footsteps of Blackboard Jungle (1955), Quadrophenia (1979), Boyz n the Hood (1991), and Kids (1995) and shows how marginalized youth try to cope with a shit-ass world that’s setting them up for failure.
There’s a sadness at the heart of Mid90s which underlies nearly every scene. The skaters are self-aware enough to know that even though they’re having fun, the future is bleak for them, as it is for so many teenagers on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. But the film also offers hope, at least for cinema. Jonah Hill is either the new master of neorealism, the next John Cassavetes — or just a squirrel who found his nut.