A coming-of-age tale with grit and a rough-around-the-edges heart, Mid90s is a very interesting debut for Jonah Hill as a compelling director and writer. It is a debut elevated by its character-driven style, Richard Linklater-esque sense of character and dialogue, and inspired cast.
The setting is 1990s Los Angeles. 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) has a rough home life. He is beaten every day by his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), and is distant from his single mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston), who is someone who loves her young son, but is an ineffective parent. One day, Stevie walks into a local skate shop, and meets four skater boys: group leader and burgeoning pro Ray (Na-kel Smith), party animal and unmotivated slacker “Fuckshit” (Olan Prenatt), “Fourth Grade” (Ryder McLaughlin), the poorest of the group who is always filming his friends and who also serves as a punchline for his perceived lack of intelligence, and Ruben (Gio Galicia), the youngest of the group, who befriends Stevie. Stevie’s life and behavior begin to change as he continues to hang with this group. He’s given the nickname “Sunburn,” he begins smoking, drinking and taking drugs, and he displays a newfound confidence in himself that he takes home with him. However, with these life changes come new challenges, especially as the group becomes fractured through unexpected problems and he grows even more distant from his family.
The setting of this film depicts a time where people were more carefree, for better or worse. The characters behave in a way that differs greatly from the post politically-divided world we live in today. With this skater group, they participate in inappropriate “would-you-rathers,” have misogynistic views about women, skate around in forbidden areas where they are always chased away by cops, constantly go on drug binges, and use offensive language freely. It could be said that it is hard to sympathize or find anything likable about a group like this. However, you cannot say is that they are not interesting. A big part of that is that their dialogue, while baked in profanity, reveals so much character and plays into how young people talked at that time. A lot of credit can be given to Hill for playing into those sensibilities, but what makes his dialogue land is the charisma and wry delivery of his cast.
At the center of the cast is the young Suljic, who starts out with a quiet stillness before growing in power and performance as his character changes. His scenes with Hedges, who is both terrifying and heartbreaking, are some of the most emotionally powerful scenes in the film. Waterston is great, but is underutilized.
However, the stars of the film are the four skater bros: all four actors, relatively new to the scene, are funny, enraging, heartwarming, unlikable and interesting. In particular, Smith brings gravitas to his leadership role, and Prenatt is consistently engaging with a great sense of comedic timing.
Hill has to be commended for thinking how to bring out the traits of his characters through a visual sense. In particular, cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt has two shots that stand out, both of which are shot on the street. The group is skateboarding against the sunset in the turn lane, and are skating closer to the camera. This shot is not only visually stunning, but also plays so heavily into each of the characters’ journeys and where they are at those specific moments. He also keeps the pace moving, with the film clocking in at a brisk 84 minutes.
If there is criticism to give, it is that while Hill revels in the setting, he does not have a lot of insightful commentary or critique as to what this time meant for the skateboarding community at the center of it. It is a coming-of-age story first, a 90’s era film second. In retrospect, it would be hard to tell that this was sent in the 1990’s if it was not filled with the cassette tapes or the 90’s soundtrack. And while the characters are interesting, their crass and unlikable nature could make it hard for audiences to care.
Mid90s’ strength lies not just in the characters, but also in the promise of where Hill’s already established career can go from here. With a mature debut like this, it looks like the sky’s the limit for Hill. | Bill Loellke