Film Review – Mid90s
Jonah Hill’s feature length debut as writer and director – Mid90s (2018) – has a great affection for the timeframe it’s set in. As the title suggests, Hill takes us back to Los Angeles in the middle of the 1990s, amongst the youth that spends their time skateboarding around the city. We can see that Hill loves this era, as he fills the narrative with numerous details: from the baggy clothes, the shoes, and especially the music. The soundtrack is loaded with ‘90s music, especially hip-hop. These characters live their lives to the beats of A Tribe Called Quest and the Wu-Tang Clan. The film itself was shot on 16mm, providing a 4:3 aspect ratio that resembles something you would see on VHS. Needless to say, nostalgia plays a big part here.
I connected with much of these callbacks. Hill and I were born in the same year, and grew up in the same culture where the internet was not yet a thing, and summers were spent outdoors roaming around with your friends doing whatever you could to pass the time. It’s these qualities that work best in Mid90s. Hill took great pains to recreate the time and place of his adolescence. But it’s when we dig into the story and the lives being told where we see some of his shortcomings.
Our protagonist is Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a thirteen year old boy who connects with a group of skaters and quickly develops a friendship with them. Among them are Ruben (Gio Galicia) who first befriends Stevie, Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) who has aspirations to become a filmmaker, Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) who shows promise as a skater but spends his time partying too much, and Ray (Na-kel Smith) the most talented of the bunch and who has a legit shot of becoming a pro. Once accepted into the circle, Stevie enters a world of constant fun: skating, drinking, smoking, and chasing girls. Of course, this way of life makes little sense to Stevie’s mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston), and especially to his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) who tries to prove his toughness by pushing Stevie around.
We realize the kind of approach Hill is going for. Richard Linklater is clearly an influence on him, particularly with Slacker (1990) or Dazed and Confused (1993). These characters all live in the moment, some of whom have a self-awareness that allows them to understand that being young is not a permanent thing. And at times, they can drift off into deep philosophical tangents behind the “meaning of it all.” The central point of this theme comes from Ray. While Na-kel Smith is a professional skater in real life, on screen he has a natural ease with the way he moves and speaks. He never tries to push too hard to generate an emotional response, his natural charm and demeanor is enough for us to gravitate toward him. It’s as though he time traveled straight from the ‘90s, and when he dives into deeper levels of thought or insight, we gather that he has been thinking about these ideas long and hard. Smith easily delivers the best performance.
The drawback with Mid90s is how Hill develops the characters and their relationships once the time and settings are established. While it’s obvious that these are young people that make the dumb decisions that young people make, I found myself growing less and less interested in them the further the story went along (outside of Ray). When Stevie sees his friends disobey authority figures, he uses that influence to curse out his mother, who’s rightfully concerned by Stevie’s growing smoking and drinking habits. Fuckshit – as his name would indicate – appears to be headed toward a life of addiction and substance abuse. He could very well end up as one of those sob stories of a person who had the world in the palm of his hand as a teen only to be slapped with a hard dose of reality as an adult. Rivalries and animosity grows within the group that doesn’t have much reason to exist. Inside of Stevie’s home is even more of an empty shell. We get hints of Dabney’s promiscuous lifestyle with various men, but that is only slightly touched upon and never developed. Ian is an even bigger mess of a character, and his constant physical abuse of Stevie has no rhyme or reason.
This all comes to a head in the closing act, where Hill opts to go for a big, climactic moment that just doesn’t fit tonally with everything else that came before it. The plot structure worked best when there wasn’t a plot at all, where the characters move in and out of different episodes going through experiences with one another. This is what Richard Linklater was so good at with his early work – he could make seemingly banal conversations feel alive and thought provoking. Hill has not hit that point yet. Instead, his third act felt artificial and thus ended up losing me. He definitely has the talent to make a great film, and I look forward to seeing it. It just didn’t quite work for me with the first go around.