I have a friend who works in film production who has all but sworn off streaming movies and newer titles in the last few years. He prefers to watch physical media and 4K releases of older titles, because, as he says, “Everything just looks like shit now.” When I ask why, he decries the flat lighting, the drab compositions, the homogenized cinematography of the present era.
Normally I only sort of know what he means, but watching North Hollywood I suddenly feel like I understand. Almost from the very first frames, Mikey Alfred’s feature debut (hitting On Demand this Friday) feels like something new. A lot of reviews don’t discuss a film’s visual style, because there’s a limited vernacular for it. It’s easier to talk about story than it is to explain why a particular image “pops” while another doesn’t. Yet you don’t have to understand the method in order to notice that North Hollywood just feels different. It feels greedy for eyeballs in a way that not many films are, ostensibly the work of someone who’s spent a long time with a camera in their hands.
That someone, it seems, is 26-year-old director Mikey Alfred (along with his cinematographer Ayinde Anderson). Alfred, according to this LA Times profile, started a skate and clothing brand (Illegal Civilization) when he was 12, and went on to co-produce Jonah Hill’s skater coming-of-age tale, Mid90s, when he was 23. Like North Hollywood‘s protagonist, Michael, played by Ryder McLaughlin, Alfred grew up in North Hollywood with a construction worker father. Alfred’s own father had been to prison in the eighties before starting his construction business, and his mother worked in a mall before getting a job as the assistant to legendary The Kid Stays In The Picture subject, producer Robert Evans. Evans is quoted in the profile, conferring on Alfred almost unimaginably high praise, “Mikey is the first kid I knew who reminded me of me.”
North Hollywood doesn’t feel much like a Robert Evans movie but it does feel like it was made by a pro. Perhaps Alfred’s association with his legendarily old school “Uncle Bob” goes some way to explaining North Hollywood‘s timeless quality.
Vince Vaughn plays Mclaughlin’s dad, an old school hardass who wants his son to straighten up and go to college, when all his son wants to do is to become a pro skateboarder. It’s an age-old story, this conflict between the traditional father and the bohemian son. But it’s also a new one, because it’s essentially Alfred’s story, and he’s barely old enough to rent a car. Alfred embraces this vintage cool, new-old aesthetic in almost every facet of North Hollywood‘s construction, from the fifties and sixties doo-wop soundtrack to the way McLaughlin’s character, Michael, goes to meet up with his best friend Adolf (Aramis Hudson) by throwing pebbles at his upstairs window. It exists as this nostalgic yet current self-conscious parody of Norman Rockwell Americana.
North Hollywood, both the film itself and the characters in it, is self-referential in that way, toying with the form and performing a half-joking pantomime of SoCal’s halcyon days, as glorified in Beach Boys songs and hot rod movies. It comes off as not derivative but authentic. After all, what is Gen Z if not self-aware and media savvy, the inheritors of 100 years of mass media video imagery before they were even born? When Michael and his friends Adolf and Jay (the excellent Nico Haraga, previously of Booksmart) meet up to goof around and chat up girls, they do it at the local drive-in during a hot rod meet up, while wearing Chuck Taylors and vintage cardigans while the girls suck milkshakes through candy-striped straws.
About those dude hangouts: much has been written about various depictions of male friendship on film, from Entourage to First Cow to Superbad to Swingers, but rarely has the act of doing nothing and busting balls with the boys felt as accurate, as genuine, and as joyful as it does in the scenes between the three principals in North Hollywood — played by McLaughlin, Haraga, and Hudson. I laughed hard and cathartically, not because the characters are so clever, but precisely because they aren’t. Alfred captures perfectly the way that a group of dudes-bein’-dudes can be hilarious without any of them being particularly articulate or clever, solely through timing, familiarity, shared experiences, and repetition.
I wasn’t entirely a fan of Alfred’s last co-production and North Hollywood‘s spiritual predecessor, Mid90s, but it did have something — an authenticity of character if not of story. That special something achieves full flower in North Hollywood, where the straightforward documentary of McLaughlin and Hudson landing sweet skate tricks, plainly without aid of stunt doubles, contrasts beautifully with the manicured, choreographed and carefully composed pop art homages set at the drive-in.
True, the plot about Michael really really wanting to become a pro skater at times does wear a little thin (as do the acting abilities of the real-life pro skate dudes Michael keeps trying to impress). Inasmuch as North Hollywood‘s protagonist seems to embody Gen Z hustle culture, it’d be nice if he examined a little more what he’s hustling towards, and why.
But then, what is adolescence if not a time when everything seems much more important than it really is, and you desire things intensely without fully being able to articulate why? It’s true, North Hollywood‘s story isn’t quite as affecting as its style. As such, it’d be easy to label it “all style, no substance.” But as North Hollywood proves, when you do it well enough, style is substance.