SHOULD I SEE IT?
Jonah Hill as a director is a curiosity a lot of people are not going to be willing to pass up.
Reminiscent of films from the era, Mid90s has an unapologetic, devil-could-care sensibility that impressionable audiences will swoon over.
Through the din of racial epithets and slurs, underage drinking and illicit behavior, Mid90s offers us an essay on how kids not only become products of their environment, but also adapt to survive.
Hill throws a lot of ideas and topics into the air but it is really unclear just what he is saying here.
The more Mid90s feels loose and free-form, the more you get the nagging sense that every single detail was micro-managed in the hopes of creating irrefutable authenticity. That’s a problem.
Offers no real insight and becomes rather forgettable.
At the center of Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, Mid90s, we see 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) slip through the grasp of his home life and find a community with four older skaters in the throes of a Los Angeles summer. Frequently bullied by his 18-year-old brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), Stevie is overlooked and left to his own devices by single mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston).
Taking place over the course of a few impactful weeks, Stevie stumbles into a local skate shop, where he first makes friends with Ruben (Gio Galicia), a brash, assertive, self-appointed mentor who counsels Stevie on the ways of the group.
Ruben’s endorsement leads the other skaters, Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), a quiet videographer, F**ksh*t (Olan Prenatt), a carefree partier, and Ray (Na-kel Smith), grounded and introspective, the chance to befriend and welcome in their newest recruit.
Stevie sees the shop and these friends as a home away from a place he doesn’t want to be. The cost? $40, which he takes from his mother’s hidden stash to buy a skateboard. With board in hand, Stevie quickly tries teaching himself how to skateboard and tries fitting in as smoothly as possible. Once Stevie gets settled, Ray quietly takes him under his wing. Seeking professional endorsements and sponsorships for his skating ability, Ray is looking for a way out of a city he desperately hopes to leave behind.
When it comes to characters, Hill understands his people. His characters here are dense and complex, believable and real. Mid90s’ strongest moments come in the opening 30 minutes or so, as we learn more and more about each skater and begin to connect the dots as to why Stevie becomes such a natural fit.
Largely consisting of first-time actors, with several of the main actors in the film real-life skateboarders, Mid90s retains a loose, freestyle nature about it. The characters speak over one other on occasion, the film lacks syncopation, and Hill succeeds in orienting us to time and place. While Hill has not shared just how much of the film is drawn from personal experience, the inspiration he called upon to craft the film seems as vivid as any memory could be.
We scan the CD shelves of Ian’s bedroom, a supposed forbidden place for Stevie to go, seeing a library full of rap and hip-hop CD’s from the likes of Tha Alkaholiks, The Pharcyde, Cypress Hill, and more. Posters adorn the walls, and Stevie jots down notes of things Ian is a fan of, trying to get closer to a brother who sees him as little more than a punching bag.
Hill starts his film off strong, but as the movie goes on, and Stevie partakes in a similar life to that of his buddies - downing 40s, smoking weed, talking smack to grown-ups and authority figures - everything begins to unravel from a narrative standpoint.
Essentially, Hill’s screenplay runs out of places to go. At a scant 84 minutes, including credits, Mid90s begins to feel repetitive and threadbare. The hip-hop music cues become predictable, the scenes start to feel obvious in set-up and execution, and two key moments involving Stevie attending a teenage party and traveling with his friends may shock and surprise, but ultimately, they feel rather meaningless.
Suljic is a discovery though. Previously seen in small roles in last year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer and this summer’s The House with a Clock in Its Walls, the recently turned 13-year-old carries much of the movie on his back. As the only experienced actor in the main cast, save Waterston of course, he also plays well off the unpolished, just-being-myself performances his colleagues bring to the film.
And yet, for all the care Hill spends in building what is clearly a deeply personal reflection to the mid-1990s, I’m not quite sure who this movie is made for or what, if anything, it is attempting to say.
Is this a cautionary tale? A film that speaks to the power of connections, lost, held, and/or found? An essay on skate culture? A biopic of sorts from Jonah Hill’s youth? An indictment on parental disengagement? A testament to resilience and friendship and loyalty?
Watching this, I was reminded of Larry Clark’s controversial 1995 drama, Kids. Screenwriter Harmony Korine, who cameos here, wrote a visceral, disturbing story of teenagers and young adults, played by non-actors and new performers, living within a transient sub-culture. Moving from couch to couch, oblivious to the dangers of their world, they consumed anything they could, and embraced a rebelliousness to anyone they perceived threatened their very existence.
Mid90s may soften that tone somewhat, though Hill infuses racial epithets and vulgar slurs into his script which feel forced. The hazy cinematography and hip-hop/punk soundtrack, however, definitely keep you paying attention.
While impressively tilted towards nostalgia and creating an authentic look and feel, Mid90s never quite gives us a reason to care about the elements it places before us. Great performances help, and Hill’s talents as a filmmaker/storyteller are readily apparent, but when you try to gather all the solid, strong individual moments into one meaningful, lasting final product, Mid90s shows more than a few imperfections.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Sunny Suljic, Katherine Waterston, Lucas Hedges, Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Gio Galicia, Ryder McLaughlin, Alexa Demie, Teren Jones.
Director: Jonah Hill
Written by: Jonah Hill
Release Date: October 19, 2018