“You literally take the hardest hits out of anybody I’ve seen in my entire life. You know don’t have to do that right?” Those are the words of Ray (Na-kel Smith), young Stevie’s mentor and friend, the leader of the skate pack in Jonah Hill’s Mid90s.
The opening shot of Mid90’s is little Stevie (Sunny Suljic) being viciously thrown against a wall by his brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges). Specifically, a hallway wall, so that the space is so confined we already understand that there is no way out. The other beatings are just the same, one of the quietest ones taking place in Stevie’s bed while he stifles his screams with his beddings. Stevie takes beating after beating from his brother, while nobody, not even their mother, seems to notice. He’s taken so much pain, it seems, that instead of fighting it, he releases it on himself. He laughs after falling a few feet down into a chasm under a makeshift skatepark. It’s a gruesome sight, watching a child laugh with blood running down his face. He’s powerless against the violence of his brother, but, as if to control his pain, he takes out beatings upon himself after he’s covered in bruises. After he steals his mother’s money, he chafes his leg with a lint remover. It seems as if he’s punishing himself for being weak, for being powerless. The point I realized this was after his third beating from Ian, when he runs to his room and tries to choke himself with a belt. It’s frustration that he can’t take out on his brother, or his mother. His body is the only thing he has control over. It seems, even for the audience, that this is the only way of overcoming whatever helplessness he must feel. This pain is powerful. If I can endure this self-inflicted pain, he must be saying, I can endure anything.
“I don’t feel like I have a disease. This isn’t like cancer. This is my choice, I put myself here,” says Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet), to his addiction rehab sponsor (Andre Royo) in “Beautiful Boy.” On the brink of tears, anger, and the same sort of helpless frustration, Nic hits another breaking point. Nic and Stevie hit breaking point after break, yet they never fully break. Stevie takes the hardest hits and Nic takes the hardest drugs. The pain they endure is not of their own making, but they’re caught up in it, trapped by the vices that cause the most damage and construct their only normal. Nic wants to stop, but there’s nothing that can stop him. The black hole, as he puts it, just won’t let him. The anger this brings to both himself and his father is uncontrollable. Nic’s several instances of almost dying don’t stop him. They can’t. He can endure anything. After sobering up for a few days he looks for more drugs, the next high, and the next. When he can’t get the drugs he wants to he finds pills in his girlfriend’s bathroom and desperately takes those. There’s no stopping. The only hope we have for Nic is the love his family has for him, that too is a kind of endurance.
I think the important takeaway is this: just because the body can endure so much does not mean we need to push it to its limits. That goes for the social body, society itself. Humans can endure, and as a collective we have become able to normalize, desensitize and numb ourselves to pain. There are people who love you and do not want you to hurt yourself, and if there are not, there will be. They will love you unconditionally. You’re strong, but you don’t have to prove anything to anyone except yourself, and sometimes not even then. Your body spends its life trying to keep you safe and alive. Even though you can hurt it, you don’t have to. Even though you can endure hardships, there is always a way out.
The final straw it seems, for Stevie and for Nic, is the closet to rock bottom as you can get. I say the closest because I don’t think there is a rock bottom for them. The more times they feel pain, the closer to death they get, the more normal it becomes. It may look like rock bottom for some, but I think it’s just another step further into the black hole. Both these young people tell us character’s reflect on the kind of mindset we have today. We can take the hardest hits—from anxiety inducing headlines, to bullying and gun violence, to suicide rates—we can take it. We consume and digest it because it’s part of who we are. But we shouldn’t have to pretend that it’s normal and undefeatable.