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Review: ‘Mid90s’ Is One of the Smallest, Mightiest Movies of the Year

A movie’s length is a product of pace and scale. When a movie feels too long, that usually indicates its pace wasn’t fast enough and its scale wasn’t broad enough to make that time feel full, and that’s when we say a movie is “slow” or that it “drags.” Lord of the Rings doesn’t feel long because it covers a lot of ground (enormous scale) and it cuts across its various storylines with purposeful, but not spastic, efficiency (steady pace). That makes for a satisfying movie, even for three-and-a-half hours.

Mid90s delivers the same satisfaction in miniature. Jonah Hill’s skate-centric directorial debut is a scant 84 minutes (including credits), but it doesn’t feel abrupt or quaint because Mid90s boasts a reckless downhill pace and a tight, contained focus. That’s not limiting, either. At times, Mid90s thumps its chest and roars loud enough to make your seat rumble. It’s huge inside. This tiny box is bursting at the seams with truth.

Our hero in Mid90s is Stevie (Sunny Suljic—you’ll love him), a 13-year-old with an abusive older brother and single mom. Stevie falls in with some local skaters: Ray, the most talented of the group and their de facto leader; party-hard number-two F***s*** (yup); baby-faced Ruben; and Fourth Grade, their camera guy. The gang adopts Stevie under the nickname Sunburn, and even though Stevie’s a terrible skater, his eagerness to please and self-damaging recklessness earn him street cred.

As a movie centered around skate, Mid90s goes deep into a culture many viewers won’t understand, but ignorance can’t stop you from connecting with Stevie and the others. This is a coming-of-age movie. It’s about friends and belonging and making mistakes and the consequences of believing what others say about you, good and bad. Even if you’ve never owned Vans, listened to GZA or watched Viva la Bam in your life, don’t sleep on this movie. It’s still for you.

Some might scoff at the way Mid90s approaches its ideas about growing up. Yeah, Stevie drinks and smokes and runs from the cops and hooks up with a girl and swears like a three-foot sailor, but the movie asks you to have some grace with that. Nothing’s glorified here. In fact, the movie’s climactic moment serves as a terrifying worst-case consequence of buying into the idea of teenage immortality. Many of the antics are played for laughs here—and no lie, they’re dang funny—but when reality hits down the stretch, you won’t be laughing. These punks can hit you where it hurts.

The micro-world of Mid90s is a perfect setting for this particular story. Skate culture has a hard-in, hard-out boundary line. Those on the inside are up to their necks in it; those on the outside don’t wet their toes. Those strict parameters illuminate the rules under which a kid like Stevie operates. There’s a clear mode of survival here, and staying atop the food chain takes guts (will you jump the gap?), conquest (can you talk to that girl?) and sacrifice (when you fall, will you try again?). Some of that survivalism looks ugly, but it’s legit, because just as the world of skating has its rules, so does the world of high school, or youth group or anyone’s childhood home.

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And Mid90s stays small because it implies this dynamic instead of laying out the laws of the jungle outright. It saves time on storytelling, but it also makes the world feel lived-in and spacious. Characters have backstories and histories we only hear about in passing (a lot of these stories seem just as movie-worthy as Stevie’s), conflicts and tensions evolve through passing looks or suppressed words and when things boil over, it happens so naturally you’ll think of it as sudden when really it was inevitable. Mid90s teaches you its lessons without you realizing how much you learned.

Really, that’s to say Mid90s uses a small lens to magnify universal themes. That’s true of any great coming-of-age movie—Eighth Grade did the same thing this summer—but Mid90s sets itself apart because its temporal and cultural focus let you in as much as they represent something greater. These kids likely aren’t your people, but after 84 minutes, they feel like they could be, and that makes for an uncommonly and unexpectedly inclusive movie.

It would be so easy to look at the surface-level story of Mid90s—a little kid meets some bad influences and ventures wayward—and write it off as irresponsible or immature. It’s neither. This movie is wise, but like anyone who thought they were cool 20 years ago, it buries that wisdom beneath a mugging, cussing, middle finger-waving veneer. There are some illuminating truths here if you’re looking for them, so don’t put Mid90s in a box. It’s strong enough to break out anyway.

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