Review: Mid90s

by Andrew Parker

Mid90s, the gritty, purposefully un-PC directorial debut of actor Jonah Hill, is the rare sort of nostalgia trip that’s tinged with more mortification and subtle regret than an open embrace of one’s younger years. An honest and unflinching look at the toxic masculinity and cultural mentalities of an era not that far in America’s cultural rear view, Mid90s is destined to be misunderstood by some critics who incorrectly assume that Hill’s first feature as a solo writer and director serves as a celebration of youthful ignorance and “simpler times.” To make such an assumption (within an admittedly testosterone driven narrative) would be shortsighted. Large portions of Mid90s are extremely uncomfortable to sit through, but not because of what’s being said or done in Hill’s boundary pushing coming of age tale. It’s uncomfortable because it’s so truthful.

Thirteen year old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is a Los Angeles area kid who’s at an age where childish things are less appealing and he’s finally gathering up the strength to rebel against his less than ideal home life. While his mother (Katherine Waterston) is a loving and doting single parent, his older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges), is a brute, prone to flying off the handle and beating the holy hell out of Stevie at the sight of any slight annoyance or transgression. One afternoon, he wanders into a skate shop and is immediately taken with the personalities of the people he meets. He’s welcomed into the fold by Ruben (Gio Galicia), a tough talking kid around the same age as Stevie, and their relationship is abrasive, but clearly friendly from the start. Stevie has never ridden a skateboard in his life, so his skills are nurtured and quickly mentored by Ray (Na-kel Smith), a black teen who wants to hone his craft and eventually turn pro one day. Stevie’s also introduced to a hard partying lifestyle through his new buddies, especially the aptly nicknamed Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), a SoCal burnout who only ever wants to drink, smoke, pop some pills, and skate all day. While Stevie has found a sense of belonging that he previously lacked in his home life, he’s also quickly going down a road where any sense of boyish innocence will be lost forever.

Mid90s is the type of film one would most readily classify as a mood piece. There’s not much in the way of plot to follow along with, and the characters other than Stevie and (to a lesser extent) Ray don’t have a lot of development. Hill plunks viewers down into the middle of his characters lives and asks the viewer to take an anthropological view of them. It’s like viewing wildlife in their natural habitat, albeit with more dramatic and obviously constructed emotional beats that a documentary on the same subject wouldn’t have. Mid90s unfolds as a brief, but concise series of seminal moments in the life of a young man who could turn out to be a great adult or a complete waste of space just the same.

Hill looks at this young man on a precipice without judgment and with a great deal of empathy. We know that seeing Sunny spending time with his friends breaking into forbidden skate paradises and drinking 40s isn’t the healthiest of behaviours, but we also know that it’s vastly preferable to spending time with his loathsome, insular, constantly brooding, and painfully ungrateful older brother back home. Sunny might end up becoming his brother (or his absentee father, who’s rarely, if ever, brought up in conversation), but he also runs the risk of becoming something potentially worse if the young man’s better qualities aren’t nurtured and respected by his newfound surrogate family.

That’s a delicate tone to modulate, especially in a narrative that clocks in at just a shade under 85 minutes, and it’s even more difficult with such a narrow perspective that rarely branches out from Sunny’s direct experiences. Just the same, Hill’s more than content leaning back against the wall while these kids do their thing, observing and picking out the moments he finds most artful or formative in the same manner as Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), the skate crew’s resident videographer. Rarely does Hill’s authorial voice crop up, and here that should be considered a positive. For anyone who lived through that era at an age similar to any of the kids being profiled – regardless of geographical location – Mid90s will ring with uncomfortable, beguiling truth.

Mid90s depicts a time before anyone was paying considerable attention to the use of equitable language, questioning what they said before they said it, or really any form of teenage civility. Even the film’s depictions of bullying, hazing, and peer pressure feel strangely alien and removed from similar situations today. Outside of a stacked soundtrack of indie hip-hop classics and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s choice to shoot everything with grainy, full frame film stock, Hill includes few visual or pop culture nods to the era itself. Mid90s might open with shots of what a typical teenager’s bedroom might’ve looked like back in the day, but from that point on the cultural references are mostly limited to the way these kids talk, move, and carry themselves. Mid90s isn’t just a coming of age film where a young boy – in ways both better and worse – starts forming pieces of his adult life, but a look back at a period that seems nasty and backwards by today’s standards when put under a microscope.

Hill is asking that viewers look beyond the obvious shock value of Mid90s to question whether or not one’s teenage years ultimately inform who they become as adults. It might only be his first feature film, but Hill wants to engage with viewers on more of a philosophical level than a purely entertaining one. Every bit of foul language that was considered mainstream and appropriate back in the day, but is considered archaic and wildly offensive today is employed with gusto and aplomb, and I don’t think that Hill is employing such cadences and previous culturally acceptable behaviours lightly. There’s nothing nostalgic about looking at things that are patently ugly, and it becomes clear early on that the details Hill wants to revel in aren’t the ones that will be obvious on a surface level. This ugliness and underlying social malevolence is most noticeable in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ typically foreboding musical score, one of the duo’s finest collaborations to date. Hill wants to find every way possible to underline how he doesn’t condone the bad behaviours of his characters without trampling all over their experiences. It’s harder than most of the skate tricks attempted by the kids in the film, and he sticks the landing, albeit with a few shakes and wobbles.

The overall point to Mid90s is that being a hetero, white, male teenager from a lower middle class background can be both hellish and freeing, which is hardly a game changing observation on the whole, but one that Hill finds himself drawn to. There’s barely any female input outside of Sunny’s mother or the first girl that the young man sexually hooks up with, and that seems to be more of a problem than any of the language being employed. Watching these boys metaphorically comparing dick sizes becomes exhausting quickly, but I can’t say that it’s inauthentic or that Hill revels in it. Hill knows precisely how long modern audiences will be able to tolerate or stomach Stevie and his buddies, and he never wants to wear out any sort of welcome or willingness for the audience to engage with the material. There’s assuredly a whole lot of external perspective that’s missing from Mid90s, but that’s also what makes it so captivating on the whole. It’s like watching these kids from a street corner, wanting to say something but ultimately staying quiet for fear that words won’t make a difference.

Hill’s helped immensely by his almost down the middle blend of experienced performers and newcomers. While most of Stevie’s crew is made up of first timers or actors that are just starting off, Hill has chosen a slightly more seasoned young lead in Suljic to anchor the film. While he’s popped up recently in a number of notable projects (The House with a Clock in Its Walls, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Mid90s is the first film to give Suljic (who’s also an actual skateboarder on the side) a weighty and nuanced role to sink his young teeth into. Suljic might be far too young to remember any of the cultural touchstones that Hill can reminisce about, but he’s more than willing to put in a lot of dramatic heavy lifting. Even when Stevie starts screwing up and becoming just another directionless, falsely anarchic punk kid, Suljic is able to keep his finger and eye on his character’s fluctuating humanity, especially in scenes opposite Smith, who makes a major impression here as a character that would make a better sibling to the young man than his actual brother.

The main drama in Mid90s doesn’t come from Stevie’s time with his friends outside of a growing rift with an increasingly jealous Ruben or the constant danger that he’ll turn into a laid back party monster like Fuckshit. Hill saves most of the more cinematic dustups for Stevie’s interactions with his family members, and Suljic shows his depth and range as a performer greatest opposite Waterston and Hedges, who are both equally great in their vastly different parts.

Waterston’s turn as the film’s only truly lovable and fully sympathetic character is quietly revelatory and commanding whenever she takes control of the story. The viewer wants to know more about her life and what she’s going thought at the same moment in time. She’s a great mother, but the bits of information that will clue viewers into what led her to this point are frustratingly out of sight in Hill’s material. It’s a testament to Waterston’s performance that she’s able to bring all of these questions to the surface mostly through body language and cadence alone. It’s an outstanding performance from an exceptional actress in the film’s most subtly important role.

Meanwhile, Hedges hasn’t had the opportunity to date on screen to play a truly loathsome character until now, and Mid90s offers the young actor (who will be seen twice more before the year is done as the lead in Ben is Back and Boy Erased) a chance to play well against current audience expectations of him. Ian is one of the biggest and most fearsome villains in any film this year, mostly because his few and far between stabs at attempted kindness never outweigh his violent and entitled outbursts and rebuffs towards his brother and mother. Ian is the type of kid who’s never sorry until he gets caught doing something awful and never grateful until it’s almost too late to give thanks and respect. It’s a complex character that grows increasingly more layered as Hill’s film progresses, and Hedges responds by subtly showing growth within a character that has no concept yet of self improvement or self respect, and it’s a wonderful, low-key choice within the film’s most purposefully fearsome and obnoxious character.

Mid90s mostly feels like a cultural experiment for Hill. It has a lived-in quality and rigidly observational, non-judgemental tone that’s a refreshing change of pace for most actors turned directors. Only at the film’s abrupt and admittedly unsatisfying conclusion does Hill give into convention, offering up a plot twist that feels both plausible and curiously manipulative at the same time. With his conclusion, Hill takes something that could’ve been within reason, and turns it into a moment to turn his chair backwards, sit on it like a cool teacher, and ask the viewer what they’ve learned from the experience. It’s not a good look for an otherwise uncompromising film to go out on, but it certainly doesn’t detract from the fact that Hill has made a strong debut feature. It will be extremely interesting to see where Hill the Filmmaker goes from here.

Mid90s opens in theatres across Canada on Friday, October 26, 2018.

Check out the trailer for Mid90s:

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