As a directorial debut, Mid90s proves quite promising for Jonah Hill. While the film is not perfect and has classic debut trepidation and uncertainty within it, the film works. It focuses in on a group of skaters in 1990s Los Angeles, including the younger Stevie (Sunny Suljic). The impressionable young teen sets out to join the group by learning to skateboard after seeing them in the street one day. As he does, he forces his way into the group and quickly becomes a close friend of the older boys. Hill explores this bond, both from the outside and later as an insider via Stevie while also probing the relationship Stevie has with older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) and his mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston). It is an empathetic film, aiming to peel back the stereotypes surrounding skateboarders and to give a voice to typically overlooked impoverished youths and adults.
Mid90s shines most prominently when Hill sits back to watch these skateboarders experience day-to-day life. As the older Ray (Na-kel Smith) takes Stevie under his wing, showing him true kindness for the first time in his life or as the boys simply hang out, the audience begins to feel the same connection to the characters that Stevie does. Even as their flaws become apparent, hanging out with Ray, Ruben (Gio Galicia), Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), and Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) proves quite enjoyable. The scenes are laid back as they talk about any old topic, ask perverse “would you rather” questions, joke around with each other, and skate all day. It’s the summer, and these friends aim to take full advantage of their freedom by kicking back and soaking up every moment. Hill’s own nostalgia for these events in his life shines through, finding those sweet moments of friendship coupled with genuine teenage angst and confusion.
The film’s ability to develop this bond and flesh out these characters is, however, a mixed bag. Their bonds as a friend group feel incredibly real, as the actors all work quite well together and strike up a great rapport. They all even tap into some hidden demons within their characters, as Hill is content to let their issues be implied rather than explicitly stated. Until he doesn’t. This is the aforementioned uncertainty in the film, as Hill wants to ensure that these young men are given their fair shake by the audience. They can easily be written off as hooligans and dangerous influences on the young Stevie, which is what Stevie’s mother does at first. Indeed, it is hard to not feel this way, given that they encourage him to have sex, smoke cigarettes, and abuse Adderall.
Yet, in spite of this, they do truly care for Stevie and one another, and it’s clear that Hill is hoping to garner sympathy and empathy for these characters. Thus, Ray is given a prolonged monologue- as part of a conversation with Stevie about how everyone has “issues” in life, even if they hide it- about the issues they all face. Coming right after Stevie was forced to watch Dabney yell at his friends for giving him drugs and after Ian beat him up for coming home drunk, Stevie is distraught until Ray’s speech. Unfortunately, it is just too much. The characters were fine on their own, but Ray goes down the line in explaining the hidden issues they all face. Though Ray was a bit more open with how he felt about things, it was clear that these characters largely prized hiding their emotions and did not often show verbal vulnerability. Ray and the rest never will do so again, even when pushed to the absolute limit, and only do in this scene so that Mid90s can more precisely create empathy and explain the thematic focus of the film. It is quite disheartening, considering the film’s strong use of “show not tell” up to this point.
Hill’s approach to the characters and their emotions in those “show not tell” moments is also somewhat flawed. Though the film starts off a little too slow with Stevie trying to learn skateboarding, Mid90s really finds a groove in the middle and it comes off the back of the actors being given room to explore their characters. As they sit around and talk to an old homeless man instead of skating, as they talk about their dreams for the future, or as they simply pal around at the skate shop, one can feel not only the bond that between these young kids but also their true characters. They present themselves as rough and tumble, but they all are scared, determined, or broken in their own ways, and these quiet moments let them explore that. The same goes for Ian. He is prone to fighting with Stevie and tries to present himself as tough in the streets, but he is anything but. He is emotionally fragile, possibly dealing with some kind of mental health issue and, though he hides it, he definitely cares for Stevie and vice versa.
However, these small moments of humanity ultimately lead to an overly cinematic climax in which the kids all pile into a car with a drunk driver and crash the car. It is far too loud of a moment for a film so quiet. It serves as nothing more than a display of how much the boys care for one another, which had been shown before when Stevie hit his head in a prior incident. It does let Dabney show this same understanding and Ian to show more of his affinity for Stevie, but otherwise, the moment feels a bit too forceful and scripted in a film that, up to this point, was so unpredictable and free flowing. The same manufactured feeling is created earlier in a scene in which Stevie yells at Dabney quite violently in the car. Suljic nails the scene, as does Waterston, but it is the kind of over-the-top melodrama that Mid90s otherwise seems to reject, striking a rather false note in a film that is usually so honest.
The film’s usage of nostalgia suffers from the same issues as the characters. The 4:3 frame rate gives it a nice, vintage feel, and even the usage of brief VHS footage and frequent mid-90s music prove quite effective. It really sets the scene, both visually and for the world of the characters. However, Hill has a propensity to pour it on a little too thick here as well. Throwaway lines asking what someone wants to get at Blockbuster for “Blockbuster Night” and random references to old-school brands or groups are just too forceful. Rather than setting the scene, it feel like Hill and Mid90s are nudging and winking at the audience asking, “Hey you remember that, right?” As with the rest of the film, when Mid90s lets nostalgia come naturally, it excels. When it instead insists on such obvious nostalgia, the film loses its charm.
As a whole, Mid90s is a promising directorial debut for Jonah Hill, and a strong showcase for his gathered array of young yet talented actors. It is an interesting look at a group of boys who are struggling, but are so brash in their actions that they would be immediately written off by passersby. It is a film that urges audiences to look past their hard exteriors and see the lost, confused, and kind individuals underneath. Though it is indeed flawed, Mid90s is nonetheless an enjoyable ride, inviting audiences into the world of these skateboarders and hitting some rather peaceful, if deeply emotional, notes throughout.