1 Hr., 24 Mins.
Mid90s March 18, 2019
id90s (2018), Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, is a coming-of-age comedy-drama set in Los Angeles in, er, the mid-1990s. It stars Sunny Suljic, mop-headed and pint-sized, as Stevie, an introverted 13-year-old. Summer has just begun as the film opens, and Stevie, who is something of a loner, is desperate to get out of the house. His single mother, Dabney (Katherine Waterston), who became a
mom at a young age, is still trying to sort her professional and romantic lives out. She isn’t often home. Stevie’s brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges), is protective but aggressive, and takes his largely unexplained anger issues out on his little brother physically whenever and wherever.
To Stevie, escape seems as if it might come in the form of a group of teenagers who frequent the Motor Avenue Skateshop, a too-cool store downtown. Beset by a collective friend crush, he at first bikes past the gang, voyeuristically admiring them. Then he takes the initiative to introduce himself. It goes decently well. A posse comprising avoidant skaters, these young men would likely be deemed collective trouble by a parent — which means, of course, that to someone as impressionable as Stevie, they are the coolest people alive, not counting whichever celebrities he deifies.
The band is led by a lion-maned slacker who calls himself Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt). He is followed by Ray (Na-Kel Smith), who is the most emotionally mature person in the group; Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), a fumbling, aspiring filmmaker; and the temperamental Ruben (Gio Garcia), who was once the honorary baby and as such grows to resent Stevie once he becomes included in the dynamic and steals the unofficial title.
The influence Stevie’s new friend group has on him cannot be understated. He immediately adopts its profane language — especially Fuckshit’s way of offering misogynistic musings and Ruben’s middle-schoolish homophobia — and eventually starts dabbling in prescription-pill usage and downing alcohol whenever given the chance. At one point in the movie, Stevie even has his first sexual experience, which comes courtesy of a slightly older girl who thinks she’s doing him a favor.
The most troubling flashes in the narrative are strictly delineated as formative. There has been talk that Mid90s is a movie-length celebration of toxic masculinity, and that it often feels exploitative. (Indeed, the aforementioned quasi-sex scene, though more suggestive than literal, is difficult to watch.) But I saw it less as a cinematic romanticization of bad behavior and virulent worldviews and more a look into what it might have been like to have been involved in this scene during this period of time at that age. Hill has said that he never meant for the film to extol the toxicity of these characters, and I can see that in the feature. Still, though, you can understand why, to many, Mid90s' frequent verbal put-downs and noxious displays are so galling: we already have so many movies that for the most part normalize this sort of vulgarity under the guise of being "authentic."
The movie may primarily be about a kid experiencing too much too soon, but it's also about turning nostalgia on its head. Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography has the look of a textured low-budget feature from a couple decades ago, and the fashions and music revive the bittersweet feeling that tends to arise when rewatching grainy classic-era MTV footage on YouTube. But the reckless environment around which these characters roam reminds us that any era that evokes sentimentality is never quite as picturesque as our idealistic memories have made them.
For me, it wasn’t altogether the harmful worldviews many of the characters espoused or the situations into which they were thrust that were most bothersome. The shallow renderings of the characters are the most pronounced failures of the film. Because these young actors are thrilling to watch — Prenatt, who has unsurprisingly modeled for Vogue before, is a hypnotic ne’er-do-well — we often find ourselves thinking that they’re vivid precisely because of that electricity.
But once I stepped back I began to notice that Hill’s development of his characters verges on the negligent. With the exception of Ray, whose barely hidden melancholy reverberates, the young men fulfill stock types. Fuckshit is the braggadocious youth who doesn’t realize that his apathy and relentless pleasure-seeking will ultimately hurt him; Ruben the easily angered tween who will likely resort to violence as means of a resolution more often the older he gets; Fourth Grade the reticent talent whose reserve is actually a front for quiet artistic skill, not idiocy like his friends think. The Ian character is especially laxly handled. It's implied that his aggression might come from problems with his mental wellbeing, but Hill doesn’t take the time to explore this. (It doesn’t help that Hedges is miscast.) It could be argued that, because Mid90s is told from Stevie’s point of view, these characters appearing so flimsy was always intentional on Hill's part. He, too, knows them just superficially, his world only rocked when Ray sits him down and informs him that his idolatrous ideas of his older friends are built on misguided hero-worship. But Stevie is a thinly drawn character, too, which weakens the solipsistic argument.
Still, Hill’s filmmaking is auspicious, and, despite the movie’s deficiencies, Mid90s establishes Hill as a fairly gifted world-builder. There’s an ethnographic edge to his direction that I took to. And he has a good ear for dialogue, even if he doesn’t always use it by way of sneakily complex character development. His craftsmanship is marked by sincerity — a characteristic that, when supporting a movie backed by meatier material, could prove gainful. B-