2018, R, 84 min. Directed by Jonah Hill. Starring Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges, Na-kel Smith, Katherine Waterston, Olan Prenatt, Gio Galicia, Ryder McLaughlin.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Oct. 26, 2018
Given that Jonah Hill came to prominence as the star of mainstream Hollywood comedies, he may surprise some as the creative force behind Mid90s, an indie drama about a group of boys who navigate puberty from within California’s blossoming skate culture. Here Hill makes his debut as a filmmaker while trying to prove himself as the voice for an entire generation. And there are even times where Hill succeeds, navigating his own missteps as a first-time filmmaker to create a promising – albeit unsatisfactory – story of adolescent millennial angst.
On the surface, Stevie (Suljic) has many problems typical of any teenage boy. His older brother Ian (Hedges) bullies him relentlessly as his mother (Waterston) struggles to close the distance that is opening up between them. But there’s a self-destructive streak to Stevie that goes far beyond the uncertainty of puberty. Stevie harms himself, punching his chest until it bruises or choking himself to the point of dizziness when he is overcome with feelings of helplessness. It isn’t until Stevie falls in with a misfit group of local skaters that he begins to address these emotions, finding an escape from his frustration even if it means alienating the family that causes it.
In the film’s opening minutes, Hill places artifacts from the decade in front of his camera as if displaying his period credentials for all to see. Stevie’s room still bears the trappings of his early Nineties upbringing; his room is adorned with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles posters and sheets, and a Super Nintendo sits proudly in a place of honor before his television. This may be Mid90s at its most heavy-handed, but it also speaks to the calculations going on behind the camera. For a movie oft-hailed for its authenticity, everything in Hill’s feature seems determined to telegraph its intent.
There’s a tension in Mid90s between the film’s adolescent perspective and the reflections of a first-time filmmaker exploring his craft. We feel this most in the absence of adults. Each of the locations the group frequents – from skate shops to house parties – belongs only to the members of this group, despite adults of every walk of life being a function of childhood. Stevie himself says it best: He’s never been in a car that wasn’t driven by someone’s parent, and a world where adults like Stevie's mother are both overbearing and mostly absent lands strangely. These are moments Hill wants to capture onscreen but not moments that Stevie, as we have come to know him, would experience.
It’s no accident that the film’s best moments belong to Smith as Ray, the leader of the group. His choices are the ones least dictated by the script; Hill trusts Smith to shape him as both father figure and confidant for the group as a whole. When Stevie and Ray slip away to spend a night at the skate park, Hill’s understated eye as a director is given its moment to shine, capturing the uncertainty of both boys’ childhoods in how they quietly look to each other for emotional support. In that moment, all the film’s loose threads – Ruben’s (Galicia) resentment, a brother made violent by shame, a mother in need of companionship – are cast aside in the interior friendship of two kids from different worlds.
Then the story starts up again, and we’re left wondering what Mid90s might have been if it only had the confidence to do more by saying less. There is more than enough here to suggest that Hill is a filmmaker worth watching, but this film will eventually go down as unrealized potential.
For an interview with Jonah Hill about developing the film, read "Jonah Hill Goes Back to the Mid90s" online.