Content Note: domestic violence, child abuse, homomisic and ableist slurs
Stevie (Sunny Suljic) lives with his mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston) and his bigger brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). Things aren’t easy at home. Stevie gets beaten up regularly by Ian, and Dabney is rarely present, usually caught up with some man or another. When Stevie stumbles upon a group of skaters, he hopes to find the community there that he lacks at home. He takes up skating and gets to know the boys. But they are older and wilder than him.
For some reason, I thought that Mid90s would be a light-hearted film. It is not, and it disabused me of that notion within the first 30 seconds or so. Once I readjusted my expectations, I found it quite good in many ways.
Mid90s is very entrenched in Stevie’s perspective. That means that there are very few explanations – 13-year-olds rarely have explanations, or even ask themselves why people do the things they do. It also means that things that should be raged against are simply accepted as fact because Stevie doesn’t know it any differently. When his mother talks about her relationships with men as if she was talking to friends and not her kids. When Ian beats up Stevie – in a way that is far beyond usual sibling fights. When Stevie drinks and smokes and takes drugs and has sexual encounters he is not prepared for. It’s all taken in stride. It’s just his life.
The film observes all of this things meticulously, but much like Stevie, it doesn’t really know what to do with them. And so the end, that tries to be a little hopeful, a little forgiving, feels like only a short break. Nothing has really changed, has it? Next week, things will continue the same way.
The film is at its best when it captures Stevie’s kindness, vulnerability and naivité, and contrasts it with the older boys around him who have mostly had those beaten out of them by life and other boys. We basically watch Stevie being inducted into toxic masculinity where there is little room for care and affection between boys. The only exception to this is Ray, who has no problem participating but also has enough authority, distance and seriousness to allow himself to take care of Stevie a little bit. (That Ray is the only Black boy in the group does give this role a weird look though.) Given this theme of the film, it is no surprise that girls and women don’t really feature into the film, except for the distant mother and Stevie’s “conquest”.
The film is obviously crafted with a lot of attention to detail, and it seems to be a love letter to this particular subculture during that particular time. It’s very well acted and captures its characters in a naturalistic way, so it sometimes feels like a documentary more than a feature. It’s ambling nature is a double-edged sword though: there is a strength to its observations that comes from not being structured too much, but it also leaves us hanging a little.
In any case, it is a well-made debut feature. Just don’t expect it to be all that funny as so much of its promotional material seems to suggest.