Mid90s is a journey back to Wu-Tang, blockbuster rentals and an adolescence filled with skateboarding and trying to fit in. Jonah Hill’s directorial debut is a loving homage to the namesake of his first feature, baggy jeans and all. In that sense the film works because Hill was perfectly able to capture the essence of the 90s. It was a fully engrossing experience, a journey back to the mid 90s down to the soundtrack and beanies. If you’re a child from that time (as I am) you can’t help but sit with a smile as you are transported back to your youth. Unfortunately once you fight through the nostalgia, which is almost as engrossing as the film itself, you’re not left with much else.
Mid90s is a fully engrossing experience because Hill takes great care to make everything feel like the 90s. This all starts with a few technical aspects that usually no one cares about but are crucially important in this film; camera and aspect ratio. Hill uses a traditional 4:3 aspect ratio and 16mm film, this creates a vintage look and makes the whole thing feel like the 90s. The film has a texture to it, with washed out colors and a graininess that is reminiscent to the time period. This lays the perfect groundwork for the film. As soon as it starts you are subconsciously brought back to the time period of the film. This was a genius decision by Hill because you feel this film, which is important to its effectiveness.
The production design is another overlooked technical aspect that shines in Mid90s. The houses, parks and stores where we spend most of our time look authentic to the time period. As is Heidi Bivens’ costume design. A signifying trait of any era is the clothes, if that isn’t captured correctly the whole film loses its authenticity. The baggy clothes, hats and gold chains were like an uncomfortable look into a photo album, if you are from that era. When you see these clothes you start to think back to that time and almost immediately the music follows. Hill is aware of this and brings a soundtrack very fitting to the time. Armed with enough differentiation to touch anybody from the 90s you can’t help but swoon when Big L or A Tribe Called Quest plays in the background. Every aspect of the 90s is covered in this film and because of that a beautiful experience can be had.
On the technical side Mid90s is near perfect. It’s a film that has a clear direction and accomplishes that direction. There is a confidence that can be felt about what is being presented on screen. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about Hill’s screenplay. Mid90s is a film that lacks a strong narrative. We are abruptly thrusted into the life of Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a thirteen-year-old living in LA with an abusive older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges) and his mother, Dabney (Katherine Waterson). We follow him as he meets a group of friends and tries to find his place amongst the group. Throughout this story we get bits of interesting plot but there is nothing that really holds the film together.
Stevie navigating the group of friends is the focus of the film. He first builds a relationship with Ruben (Gio Galicia), where he gets a skateboard and learns how to smoke. This quickly goes sour when Stevie starts to gain the acceptance of the rest of the group, Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), the troublemaker Fuck Shit (Olan Prenatt and the alpha Ray (Na-Kel Smith). Stevie works his way into the group because he’s basically down for anything, which leads him to drinking and falling off a building. This navigation was interesting and very relatable. Trying to fit in is a tough part of adolescence and how one does that almost always makes for an interesting narrative.
It falls short in Mid90s because there is no real substance to what is happening. We watch Stevie fall into a group of friends that we all look back on and are glad we weren’t apart of. Two members of the group (Fourth Grade and Ray) are the only ones with real ambition and the group shoots down the former’s dream of making films. We also watch as Stevie goes from a pretty good kid into the makings of an objectively bad one, yet he is the protagonist that we are supposed to root for. There doesn’t seem to be any real consequences to their actions and the negative things they do are presented in an almost loving light. These kids do bad things, they lead Stevie into doing bad things, and the film never presents this as bad. It focuses more on Stevie working his way through the group, so what they are doing never gets called into question, just excused. Hill is trying to show the time period as it was and create an authentic representation of what these kids were like; he does an effective job of that. There are still storytelling aspects that need to be present, consequences being one, and the film never really does that.
There are also holes in the story that is being presented. Stevie and his mom’s relationship is a frustrating example of this. She seems to be a good mom, they have movie nights and there is a long-standing trust built between them. However, Stevie treats her like crap. He steals from her, yells at her, and there seems to be no real reason for this other than the fact that Stevie is 13. There is no resolution to this or any time given to the relationship to provide insight, it’s just a loose end. There is also no real reason why any of the kids are the way they are or do what they do. Each kid seems very underdeveloped. All we know about them is that they skateboard and they have troubled home lives. The only reason we know the former is because Ray tells us in a monologue, this makes it hard to connect with these kids because there isn’t a whole lot for us to connect with. It’s unfortunate because each of the kids (all which are non-actors with the exception of Sunny) are great, especially Na-kel Smith. He lights up the screen and is the most interesting of all the performances.
Overall, Mid90s is a mixed bag. The nostalgic ode to the time period is great if you are from that era but won’t do much for everyone else. It also doesn’t give you a whole lot other than nostalgia. It presents some interesting themes but doesn’t follow through on enough to provide any real substance. Across the board there isn’t any one performance in particular that is memorable enough to bring you back. This is a film that seems to be about nostalgia and that is enough to carry you through the short run time (84 minutes). Unfortunately when that runs its course you won’t have seen or experienced anything new. My take away was Jonah Hill. He had some brilliant moments behind the camera and definitely has a cinematic eye (that long shot of the kids skating down the hill is one of my favorite shots of the year). He showed enough to get me excited for his next effort as a director. As for Mid90s, it just didn’t land for me.
2 1/2 out of 5 stars
Director: Jonah Hill Writer: Jonah Hill Starring: Sunny Suljic, Katherine Waterson, Lucas Hedges & Na-kel Smith Release Date: October 26th Rated: R Runtime: 1 hour and 24 minutes