It’s been 23 years since Larry Clark’s seminal 1995 film, Kids, earned an NC-17 rating for its nihilistic depiction of young skate rats swept up in an urban maelstrom of drug use, unprotected sex at the height of the AIDS outbreak, casual violence, and emotional detachment so aloof it bordered on immorality. But viewed through today’s lens—kids being bullied on Instagram, Xanax-popping SoundCloud rappers with face tattoos, the grim prognosis that toddlers will grow up in a world without polar ice caps—one might be inclined to ask: Was youth culture in the 1990s really so bad?
That’s one of the questions lingering under the surface of Mid90s, Jonah Hill’s optimistic and heartrending first stint behind the camera as director. The film follows a tight-knit posse of teenage pals as they find their way through broken homes and empty skate shops one summer in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s. With a deft mix of summery nostalgia and hindsight, Hill creates a captivating vérité portrait of adolescent friendship, one that brims with goofy charm and the lost innocence of coming of age in a time before managing one’s brand on social media was a rite of passage into adulthood.
Hill, who is 34, is clearly in an autobiographical mode revisiting the cultural signifiers of his prepubescent years. The film’s pitch-perfect soundtrack features decade-defining cuts from Nirvana (specifically the band’s 1993 MTV Unplugged in New York album), the Pharcyde, and Morrissey, as well as an original score courtesy of ‘90s industrial rock gods Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails.
Each scene is awash in spot-on ’90s visual porn: T-shirts emblazoned with Ren and Stimpy and Street Fighter graphics, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle bed sheets, childhood rooms stacked with bricks of CDs, and plenty of 40-ounce malt liquor to go around.
But much of the power of the realism of Mid90s belongs to the film’s fresh-faced cast of ragtag skaters. Sunny Suljic, a smiley 13-year-old child actor and skateboarder, stars as a youngster in awe of the power (and bruises) that comes from climbing the social ranks of the neighborhood skate park. His group of older and (to him) wiser comrades are played by Na-Kel Smith, 24, a stoic Supreme team skater and occasional rapper (he has appeared on tracks with Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt) whose only previous film credits included underground skate videos; Olan Prenatt, 22, a camera-ready clotheshorse known for his curly blond hair and Hood by Air getups just as much as for being part of the Illegal Civilization skate crew; and Ryder McLaughlin, 21, a quiet actor-skater-artist with a wiry frame and angular cheekbones that recall Kurt Cobain.
Hill says that authenticity was crucial to the casting. “I knew I was going to cast skateboarders and teach them how to act, as opposed to actors and teach them how to skateboard,” he explained. “Each one of these kids possessed a rawness, vulnerability, and inability to be false.”
Somehow, the fact that none of these actors was actually a teenager during the time period in which Mid90s takes place only adds to the film’s nostalgic glow. “I love the ‘90s,” Suljic said on a rainy morning last week. He was seated at a long conference table alongside his fellow castmates at the Manhattan offices of A24, the film production company behind Mid90s and Ladybird. “The funny part is I would have on really baggy jeans and wardrobe would be like, ‘Oh, no, this isn’t baggy enough,’” he said. “I learned a lot.”
Smith, who is the oldest of the group, chimed in. “I was pretty much already up on that stuff because my parents came up in hip-hop when it was starting so I knew a lot about the ‘90s,” he said, his voice barely registering above a hushed mumble. “I didn’t have a phone for a long time. I had a lot of older friends who showed me right and wrong things.”
Despite the fact that they have tens of thousands of followers on Instagram between them, the actors agreed that social media and smartphones have made young people more cynical than their characters in Mid90s.
“Our generation today is super technology-driven,” Prenatt said. “You’ll see every kid in the park try to film an Instagram clip instead of hanging out and trying to have fun.” The rest of the boys nodded their head in agreement.
The critical success of Mid90s (it currently sports a sterling 91 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes) means Hollywood is now knocking on their doors. Hill himself was pleasantly surprised by the skaters’ dedication to the craft of acting. “I assumed, even after three years and 20 drafts of the script, they would be far more comfortable improvising than having to become these characters I wrote and say these words,” Hill recalled. “But I was proven wrong. Watching these young men become dedicated, talented artists is the singular most moving experience of my life.”
Hill sought feedback on the script from fellow Oscars-approved collaborators like Martin Scorsese and Spike Jonze, who reportedly nudged Hill to focus the story on the infectious bond between his budding stars—both on and off screen. “Even though in the movie we have problems as a group, in the end we all come together,” McLaughlin said.
“Jonah is showing people what they typically don’t see when it comes to people like us: the friendship behind skateboarding,” Olan said. All around the table, young heads again nodded in agreement.