Forget about the rebirth of the high school rom-com, recently coaxed back to life by Netflix, a collective yearning for comfort, and the dreamy eyes of actor Noah Centineo. It's skateboarding that has low-key turned out to be the really interesting teen movie trend of 2018. Jonah Hill's directorial debut Mid90s, currently rolling through theaters, is the biggest — and least incisive — installment of an unintentional trilogy that also includes Crystal Moselle's Sundance fave Skate Kitchen and Bing Liu's personal documentary Minding the Gap. All of them use skating as a backdrop for themes of belonging, gender expectations, class, racial identity, and friendship, and prove it to be startlingly rich territory for stories about coming of age.
Mid90s, a Los Angeles–set dramedy about a 13-year-old who falls in with a collection of older teens who hang out at his local skate shop, is, like Minding the Gap, about boys finding different forms of escape through skating. And like Skate Kitchen, it's a movie that includes a lot of first-time actors who were sought out for their real-life talent on a board. But Mid90s made more in its opening weekend in four theaters than Skate Kitchen and Minding the Gap did in their total runs combined — not so surprising, given that it was directed by a movie star and is being released by A24, getting the benefit of the company's halo of hipness and track record of putting out excellent, excruciatingly intimate coming-of-age films like Ladybird and Eighth Grade. Throw in a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, a carefully curated, era-appropriate soundtrack, and warm 16 mm cinematography, and you have a movie that's basically been engineered to be an indie darling.
Mid90s is a tightly wound person's attempt to make a loose hangout flick, but that's not what makes it feel small in comparison to the other two movies — they're all intimately scaled. The difference is in its ambitions; it doesn't actually have a lot to say about the sometimes toxic teen dynamics it revels in. The movie ends with its diminutive hero Stevie (Sunny Suljic) receiving wisdom from Ray (Na-kel Smith), the most mature member of the crew who takes him in, about looking past your own problems to appreciate that everyone's dealing with ones of their own: "A lot of the time we feel our lives are the worst. But I think if you look in anyone else's closet, you wouldn't trade their shit for your shit. So it's good."
That ending is, in some ways, where Minding the Gap and Skate Kitchen begin — with the realization that no one is unique in their pain. We get the sense that Stevie may or may not end up internalizing this life lesson about empathy, and, tellingly, that he’ll probably be fine, either way. The stakes are just lower for Stevie, and for the movie he's in.
If there's a shared takeaway from all three of these movies, it’s that skating is actually an incredible lens through which to view adolescence. Part of it is just that skateboarding looks good on screen — so good that each film features someone who's always got a camera out to record tricks or epic wipeouts, as if they know that what they’re doing is made for the movies. But it goes deeper than that, to a scene that's an unpredictable nexus of identity, with complicated boundaries of legitimacy and belonging. ("No, bro, I'm a poser," a Skate Kitchen character drawls when someone spots her board and asks if she can do an ollie. "That's why I have this shit. I thought this was just an accessory. It’s my purse.")
Skating is also a perfect visualization of that particular feeling of freedom that is the privilege of being young — not free from responsibilities or realities, but able to set them aside more easily, at least for a little while, to act like both the streets and the world are yours to navigate, all paths still open. It's not that unhappy home lives, racism, loneliness, economic precariousness, or sexism vanish when someone gets on a board. But those things can briefly be outrun, creating a feeling of sanctuary, and solidarity.
Skateboarding feels like a kind of sacred territory for the trio of young men in Minding the Gap, territory that's eroding as life pulls them in different directions. First-time filmmaker Liu grew up recording himself and his friends as they dicked around in the struggling Rust Belt city of Rockford, Illinois, in the 2000s — a bunch of skinny, grinning kids skimming down the middle of empty streets, messing with security guards, and being dumb teenagers. When Liu, who eventually made his way to Chicago, came back in his mid-twenties and started filming what eventually became Minding the Gap, he focused on two friends who stayed in Rockford: Zack, white, hard-partying, and about to become a dad; and Keire, who's younger, black, and the most talented skater of the bunch.
What becomes clear is that the three young men have something in common beyond that shared loved of skating, though they never talked about it when they were kids: They all come from abusive households. The revelation that Zack — a charismatic jokester who's not fully prepared for the shift into fatherhood — has been continuing that cycle of domestic violence in his troubled relationship with his girlfriend, Nina, is something the film handles with incredible deftness, centering Nina and letting her shape and set the pace of the conversation. That doesn't make it any less agonizing when Zack finally talks about it, when he turns to the camera and says "You can't beat up women, but some bitches need to get slapped sometimes — does that make sense?" That confession gets paired with footage from the wrenching interview Liu includes with his own mother, in which he asks her why she stayed with the stepdad who beat him for so long.
Liu ended up cutting an arc about how Zack, despite his vocal disdain for his father's conservatism, becomes a Trump supporter. He didn't need it. The distance that opens up between the young men, as they drift away from someone who once felt closer than family — at least within the confines of a skate park — is there onscreen and goes beyond just the political divide. Zack stews in resentment while Keire, who has a skateboard on which he's scrawled "This device cures heartache," starts carving out a more promising path for himself. There's 12 years of skate footage intercut through Minding the Gap, and it serves as a reminder of the power and of the limitations of a shared love — the way that it creates a sense of intimacy that isn't illusory, but that's incredibly tenuous and easily dispelled. Those skate sequences start to take on an almost unbearable poignance, existing in contrast to everything we understand is along or outside it, a brief high before these young men come crashing back to the ground.
It's lighter going for the girls of Skate Kitchen, a collection of New York area teens who frequent the city's prime skate spots and document their exploits on Instagram — not exempt from the general shittiness of the world, but still buoyantly uncrushed by it. Director Moselle's first feature was the 2015 documentary The Wolfpack, and while Skate Kitchen is scripted, it does take inspiration from its cast, members of the real all-girl skater crew whose name provided the movie’s title. The main character, Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a lonely 18-year-old living with her single mom in Long Island, is a skater in search of community, and she finds one when she sneaks into Manhattan for a Skate Kitchen gathering. They take her up as one of their own, and one of the crew, Janay (Ardelia Lovelace), also welcomes Camille into the Brooklyn brownstone she shares with her dad when Camille runs away.
Repping a range of backgrounds, races, and sexual orientations, and united in a love for skating and a bold sense of style, the young women seem comfortable with themselves and each other in a way that, at first glance, looks practically utopian. But that sense of ease is deceptive. Their banding together isn't just some statement on the value of female friendship and girl power. It's also pragmatic; they use strength in numbers to insist on room in a male-dominated scene — not on the sidelines, or on someone else's arm, or, as Camille learns in the latter half of the movie, by becoming "one of the boys" and, with that, surrendering the ability to be seen as a romantic prospect.
When Camille gets exiled from the group, it's only nominally because she commits the girl-code foul of getting friendly with a friend’s forbidden ex (played by Jaden Smith, the film's one famous face, with fuckboy perfection). The real issue is that she betrays an unspoken agreement to preserve the cohesiveness of the group, and with it, the group's hard-fought strength. Skate Kitchen zooms in tight on the New York City skateboarding scene as a community, and even as it celebrates its characters, it doesn't romanticize the ways in which they have to constantly prove their right to be there. Whatever sanctuary the subculture provides, it isn’t extended evenly to everyone.
Watching Mid90s, you understand exactly why the Skate Kitchen characters have to band together. In the vintage SoCal community of Hill's movie, the social strata is as intensely policed as any Mean Girls cafeteria, and performances of masculinity are even more important than the actual skateboarding. Mid90s has been repeatedly praised for its authenticity, but it's never more real than when it's focusing on phoniness, showing what Stevie is willing to do in order to fit in. We watch as he hangs out at the edges of the scene with a passed-down board until someone offers to let him run an errand, or almost dies trying a trick he's utterly unqualified for as a novice skater, an extreme tryhard move that gets mistaken for being that of a wild man. Where the young men in Minding the Gap struggle to make their way to greater openness and vulnerability, he's going in the opposite direction, doing whatever he thinks is necessary to belong.
Stevie's machinations and his yearning are brutally believable. But Mid90s treats this posturing with the same ragged nostalgia Hill gilds everything else in the movie with, to the point where it's hard to tell if he thinks that behavior gets in the way of heartfelt male friendship, or if it's just what he believes heartfelt male friendship to be. "You're so cute. You're like at the age before guys become dicks," an older girl at a party tells Stevie, before bringing him into a room for his first sexual encounter, a scene that's played for laughs despite the unease of its staging. What's clear is that Stevie will become a dick as soon as he figures out how.
There's no distance between the movie's point of view and the largely terrible ideas Stevie absorbs about how men are supposed to behave, or the unquestioning way it presents cool as something that white kids can borrow from people of color by remaining in their proximity. Like its adolescent hero, Mid90s doesn't inhabit its community of skaters so much as it uses it as an accessory, a look, and a means of getting your family to pay attention to you again.
The coldness of that calculation is a shame, because even when it's consigned to the backdrop in Mid90s, skateboarding comes across as a vivid, unpredictable cultural intersection. It has the power to bring different people together, however briefly, by uniting them in the transgressive joy of treating a city as your personal skate park. When you watch these characters and subjects glide through the streets, the world temporarily opening up in front of them, it's like anything's possible.
But as Keire puts in Minding the Gap, "the effect of the drug wears off." There's a scene in the movie in which Keire, who's often the only black person in the room, is shown standing unhappily to the side at a gathering while people laugh over a video featuring repeated use of a racial slur, a reminder that whatever sense of belonging he finds on his board only goes so far. It's the fleeting nature of that community and the shared identity of being a skater that makes skateboarding so painful as a device, in these movies, and so good — a reminder that the pavement may go on forever, but these days, common ground is actually pretty hard to find. ●