There are countless different coming-of-age movies about kids who learn to blaze their own trail and become the best possible version of themselves (shoutout to the pride of Sacramento, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson), but “North Hollywood” is one of the rare few that actually embodies the courage of its convictions both on-screen and off. On second thought, make that less on-screen than off.
Written and directed by Mikey Alfred (a 25-year-old renaissance man whose prior accomplishments include founding the skateboard company Illegal Civ and co-producing Jonah Hill’s “Mid90s”), “North Hollywood” grinds out a familiar but knowing portrait of a scrawny California teen who’s forced to choose between the beaten path and his dream of becoming the next Tony Hawk. Half-sketched as its drama can be, Alfred’s feature-length fiction debut is sustained by a complete lack of poser energy and a few new tweaks on some classic tricks; come for Vince Vaughn downshifting into his indie dad phase, stay for the woozy retro vibe that evokes a timeless sense of starry-eyed youth by layering mid-century Doo-wop from the likes of Arthur Lee Maye and The Chiffons over modern skate footage.
But nothing in the movie itself is as memorable or convincing a testament to the power of self-belief as the story of how it became a hit. Rejected by Sundance — despite a relatively stacked cast and a motley crew of producers that includes hitmaker Pharrell Williams and Netflix heartthrob Noah Centineo — and declined by distributors who hadn’t forgotten how A24 struggled to generate any traction with “Mid90s,” Alfred eventually opted for a straight-to-the-people approach that saw him skip the (virtual) fest circuit and upload his baby to iTunes with all the fanfare of an amateur podcast.
As we near the end of its first week in the wild, “North Hollywood” is currently the second-most popular movie on iTunes, behind “The Marksman” (starring Liam Neeson, the Lebron James of VOD) but ahead of “proper” indies like “French Exit,” well-advertised new rentals like “Chaos Walking,” and Oscar-winning stalwarts like “Nomadland” and “The Father.” Yes, some of those titles are also available to stream at no additional cost on other platforms, but they also had seven-figure PR campaigns and prime berths at Venice and TIFF. “North Hollywood” had three nights on an Inglewood drive-in screen. Whatever assortment of niches lifted this thing towards the top of the charts (skate kids, Miranda Cosgrove superfans, uncles who are still ride or die for Vaughn, etc.), it’s compelling evidence that people can still forge their own “yes” from a world that keeps telling them “no.”
“North Hollywood” strives to convey a similar message, but things get a bit muddled once you actually start watching the movie. Ex-professional skater Ryder McLaughlin — doing all of his own stunts, none riskier than the slick-backed hair style he sports to sustain that vintage Americana vibe — delivers a raw yet elusive lead performance as Michael, the kind of 18-year-old kid who spends a lot of time looking at the bathroom mirror in search of whoever he’s supposed to be. His construction worker single dad (Vaughn) offers him one of two options: Go to college, or slap on a hardhat and start working alongside his old man. Oliver isn’t necessarily a dick about it, but, well, he’s Vince Vaughn. He talks fast, he stands tall, and his worldview is about as flexible as the cadence of his jokes.
If Michael feels handcuffed to a future he doesn’t want, his ultra-believable yet perilously under-written best friends are both stuck in holding patterns of their own. The rich and spacey Jay (“Booksmart” standout Nico Hiraga) is going to have to get serious about his life by the time Labor Day rolls around, while the inexplicably named Adolf (played without a false note by Aramis Hudson) doesn’t share Michael’s ambition to go pro. For him, the “North Hollywood” trio — so named for the locale they’ve all written in Sharpie along the sides of their matching Converse sneakers — is more than just a safety blanket or a means to an end. So when Michael starts ditching his friends to flirt with the Stanford-bound Rachel (Cosgrove) and follow the local skate legends around like an overeager puppy, it’s the worst thing that’s happened to Adolf since the day his dad named him.
On that note, the movie is oddly mom-less — a strange wrinkle to a story that mines personal experience for palpable verisimilitude (Alfred’s first brush with showbiz resulted from his own mother working as Robert Evans’ personal assistant for 37 years). “North Hollywood” keys into masculine coding and inheritance as something of a zero-sum game, as it plunges into the heart of Michael’s crew and paints a vivid picture of how they operate together. With years of skate videos under his belt and an eye-popping cinematographer (Ayinde Anderson) at his side, Alfred knows exactly how to crystallize the kinetic energy that teens create from tormenting security guards and goofing on each other. The early scenes of Michael, Jay, and Adolf grinding on stairwells or loitering outside a restaurant that’s lit like a neon sock hop convey a bone-deep sense of belonging. “North Hollywood” drops in like a house on fire and builds an extremely promising foundation in the span of a few choice moments.
If only the 90 minutes that follow were able to build anything on it. The personal yet increasingly scattershot movie that Alfred churns out of his memories is as wayward as its leading man. Like Michael, “North Hollywood” is told with a steely determination and an eye toward something big. And, like Michael, the oodles of natural talent that it relies upon are defused by an uncertainty over how to use them.
The vague concern that Michael is outgrowing his friends and his father — voiced aloud by Adolf in a last-minute scene that lacks the muscle required to carry the whole story on its shoulders — is the closest the film comes to a consistent through-line, but “North Hollywood” is far too shapeless to meaningfully funnel its characters toward their futures. Cosgrove brings plenty of doe-eyed sweetness to the table, but Rachel’s only job is to pull Michael out of his comfort zone, and the stilted romance between them never passes the smell test (Michael won’t even drink out of a water bottle that’s touched her lips). Meanwhile, Vaughn disappears until the time is right for a wallop of tough love, Gillian Jacobs is stuck playing a guidance counselor in a weird scene that only seems to exist because Gillian Jacobs agreed to be in it, while Adolph and Jay are forced into the background as Michael convinces himself that his dreams can’t come true so long as his best friends — the realest part of his life — are still by his side.
Where does the time go? Most of “North Hollywood” is spent on an aimless free skate through Michael’s post-adolescent fog. That might have been a less enervating choice in a film that leaned into its shapelessness, but Alfred can’t peel himself away from the basic contours of a coming-of-age story. The result is a lived-in movie that knows its characters by heart and remains ineffably true to them during their most candid moments, but can’t muster the momentum it needs to push them towards places they aren’t ready to go. Michael’s journey ends with such a shruggy line of unmotivated voiceover that it almost feels as if “North Hollywood” has lost faith in its hero’s ability to succeed on his own terms. One way or the other, that faith has finally been restored.
“North Hollywood” is now available to rent or buy on iTunes.