In the political world, the term "astroturfing" refers to a protest movement that's made to appear like an organic expression of grassroots anger, but reveals itself to be bankrolled by deep-pocketed organizations. (It's derived from AstroTurf, the synthetic carpeting that stands in for natural grass in some sporting venues.) Though the term has been abused by partisans and conspiracists inclined to slag political adversaries as paid protestors, it's still an evocative shorthand for faux-authenticity, the "fuzzy concrete" that stands in for the brilliant green emerging from the soil.
Written and directed by Jonah Hill, Mid90s is an astroturf movie, though it's spackled with enough truth to feel like the real thing. Based on Hill's own past as a teenage misfit who carved out a place for himself in L.A.'s skateboard culture, the film is a crude assemblage of popular influences — some from filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Gus Van Sant, who have cast Hill as an actor, and some from indie touchstones from his youth. It's like Larry Clark's Kids by way of Kevin Smith's Clerks by way of the pop-driven unruliness of early Scorsese films like Mean Streets and Who's That Knocking at My Door. Shot in "Academy ratio," which here resembles the boxiness of pan-and-scan home video, the film's modesty is belied by the soundtrack, with a score by the Oscar-winning team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and expensive cuts from Nirvana, Pixies, Cypress Hill, and the Wu-Tang Clan.
The overall effect is a film where the personal and the packaged are difficult to parse out, because Hill seeks (and often achieves) the unvarnished feel of rootless street kids, but comes at the material from the conspicuous vantage of a popular Hollywood actor. Mid90s can't have the bolt-from-the-blue quality of Clerks, because he's not an outsider anymore, so the best he can manage is a tone of bittersweet nostalgia, which creates its own set of problems.
Hill does well to cast the gifted child actor Sunny Suljic as his surrogate, not least because Suljic's tremulous 13-year-old Stevie looks significantly younger than his age, the runt of a middle-school litter. With his single mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston) too busy to supervise the house, Stevie's older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) beats on him relentlessly, in part to salve his own insecurities among kids his age. After stumbling into Motor Avenue Skateshop, Stevie finds himself drawn into the loose talk and casual derring-do of skateboarding culture and soon tries to ingratiate himself with the boys who hang out around the store. Though he suffers through a few hazing rituals on top of the scrapes of an amateur on wheels, Stevie gets accepted by the group and starts to see them as a surrogate family, with the older Ray (Na-kel Smith) as their de facto ringleader and father figure.
Mid90s is perceptive about the dangerous impressionability of youth: Stevie doesn't have the confidence to define himself and set boundaries, so he gloms onto whatever he thinks is cool — whether that's his brother's posters and CD collection or the boozy, skirt-chasing, trouble-seeking rebellion of skater boys. He embraces nonconformity with the zeal of a true conformist. It's fortunate that this gang accepts him and protects him like the wayward child he is, because he'd happily follow them off the edge of a cliff.
The prevailing feeling of Mid90s is Hill's affection and gratitude for the love and acceptance he received from skater culture, which tracks with other films about the tight communities that build up around skate parks and empty swimming pools behind chain-link fences and "No Trespassing" signs. What it lacks, however, is perspective: It's not enough for Hill to simply capture the period and dialogue and leave it at that. He doesn't seem to have a point of view on the casual misogyny and homophobia that courses through the conversation like a wellspring, or what kind of men a culture like that might produce. He can only see them as a refuge from broken lives.
By contrast, the superb Hulu documentary Minding the Gap goes that one step further by not only emphasizing the closeness of teenagers escaping poverty and abuse at home, but also how difficult it can be to break out of the cycle. Stevie's friends may help escort him through the trials of adolescence, but Hill is content to leave it there, rather than grapple with the less savory aspects of skater culture or the ragged young adulthoods that might have grown out of it. The best period pieces, like Dazed and Confused or American Graffiti or Diner — to name three more influences on Mid90s — address the past with an eye toward an uncertain and troubling future. Hill cares merely to memorialize it.