mid90s - 2018
Director(s): Jonah Hill
Writer(s): Jonah Hill
Cinematography by: Christopher Blauvelt
Editor(s): Nick Houy
Cast: Sunny Suljic, Katherine Waterson, Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Gia Galicia, Ruder McLaughlin and Alexa Demie
When I saw the trailer for mid90s, I instantly connected with the themes it was setting itself up to tackle. I grew up in the 90s, and I fell in love with skateboarding and how the community, no matter your skill level, welcomes you in with open arms. Add that to the fact that this is another addition to the ever-growing film slate of A24 and the directorial debut of Jonah Hill, you can start see why I was excited to watch this film. Walking out of the theater, I enjoyed my time even though it was a short one.
The story takes in LA in, well, the 90s and it follows 13-year-old Stevie (Suljic). Stevie comes from a single parent household, where he sees his mother (Waterston) struggle with being a parent and has to deal with his abusive, introvert older brother (Hedges). Feeling like an outsider in his own home, he looks for a surrogate family in the form of the local loudmouth teenagers (Smith, Prenatt, Galicia, and McLaughlin) that work at the skate shop. Hill also penned the script for his directorial debut, and he delivers one of the most genuine and realistic portrayals of what it is to create a family in the form of misfit strangers. Their conversations feel improvised as the kids stutter and stumble on their words since at that age your diction and way to express your feelings generally depend on curse words and insults. Love comes via hazing and teasing as kids that age rarely take anything seriously, but when one of them needs the group, a ride through the streets of LA to take your mind off your problems is never out of the conversation. Skating is the connective tissue that binds all of them no matter their background or skill level.
Quick note: some will either take offense to the language used or cringe at the homophobic remarks, but making a movie about kids in the 90s, especially boys, and not highlight the fact that this language was a way of life then, would merely be disingenuous.
Hill also showcase beautifully, with minimal words, what is like to be in a household in where, at times, you do not feel safe or welcomed. You understand why Stevie would gravitate towards the kids that seemed to be freed from their troubles, smoking, drinking, and skating to no perceived consequences. His older brother regularly beats on him and bats away any attempt his younger brother makes at connecting with him. And he is at that age where anything his mother tells him is wrong as we tend to think that we know everything and our parents are merely a nuisance. Despite this aspect being executed well, by adding maybe 10 to 15 minutes more to the runtime, the movie currently sits at a brisk 1h 24m, his family would have evolved more, and we would have understood better his brother's and mother's struggles in life.
As for his direction, Hill showed that for the past fifteen years he has been studying all the directors he made films with as he showed a level of maturity and restraint a first-time director typically does not have. Hill and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt shot this movie of super 16mm giving it a grainy look akin to the decade. This esthetic reminds me of the old school skate tapes I used to watch growing up, perfectly mirroring the aspirations of our skating group. They also played with the aspect ratio, 4:3, and this means the screen is far narrower than your typical movie theater screen. This aspect ratio gives it a more personal feel, as it limits the view of the audience. Tethered to the characters and what they see, you are not wondering outside of the central conflict presented on any given scene. At times it feels like a documentary, especially during the skating session scenes, and in the violent sequences between the brother and Stevie, it feels too real and voyeuristic due to the aspect ratio.
I want to highlight a scene, without spoiling it, in where Hill shot a sequence that in any other movie would have been a climatic or attention-grabbing moment, but decided to shot it as a close up of one of the characters reacting to the sound and light flash, followed by a crisp editing choice from Houy. It took me by surprise despite knowing full well where it was going, showcasing how effective their choice was.
Quick note: the 90s soundtrack is a goldmine and used sporadically along with an extraordinary and vibrant score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that captures the emotions of Stevie perfectly.
Hill wrangled up a group of unknowns and scored big. All of them feel like the kids I knew back then, and if you plopped them in the 90s, they would fit right in. The group's chemistry is palpable and inviting, to the point that you also want to fit right in like Stevie. You are laughing at the teasing and jokes made at the expense of each other and outsiders. Overall the acting is solid, despite having a few moments where I wish Hill took another take, even if it went against the improvisational nature of the film. A stand-out of the group of friends is Smith. His loving nature towards Suljic is heartwarming, showcasing maturity towards the world and his friends beyond his years due to his life experiences. The coldness of Hedges contrasts the attention and affection of Smith. But the film belongs to Suljic as he is asked to carry this movie on his tiny shoulders. His sense of adventure at any cost, even when it causes him physical harm, is only matched by his joy, as he is smiling and laughing throughout the film.
mid90s is an impressive debut for Hill. Tackling a subject matter that could have come across as nostalgic or indulgent, he showed restraint and attention to detail focusing on the Manusia of being a teen, instead of glorifying what films usually deem "cool.”. It prefers to showcase things that are meaningful to a kid, something as simple as building your first skateboard as it is deeply tied to who he is as a person. With great natural performances, a solid score, unique and thoughtful cinematography and fantastic editing, mid90s will leave you wanting more in part due to its short runtime, but mostly because by the end you are fully invested in Stevie and his group of friends. I look forward to Hill's next venture. Jonah Hill is why I love movies.
mid90s is currently playing in theaters. Go watch it.
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