Mid90s, the directorial debut of Jonah Hill has a lot of soul and guts. Featuring Sunny Suljic, the story is as much about the skateboarding culture in mid 1990’s Los Angeles as it is about the music that informs it.
In the few roles I’ve seen Jonah Hill star in, I’ve found him to be a stuck up, self-absorbed actor, though I realize those are the characters he plays because they play to his comedic strengths. Somewhere, buried in each of those characters is a man who has a soulful side; someone who has probably fallen one too many times, but has always managed to rebound; his resilience has made him a stronger performer, and now, director.
That’s what I admire most about his debut, Mid90s which expands this weekend: his resilience.
Mid90s is much more than just his resilience. It’s about the human need to take a pounding, physically and emotionally and to channel that resultant energy into something bigger, better and more spectacular.
The basis for his script is the skateboard culture of L.A. in the mid-1990s. Before we can even get to that, we meet our main character, Stevie (Sunny Suljic) in an abrupt way: he is slammed in to a wall by his older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges) in retaliation for something that Stevie has done to piss him off. The level of aggression that Hill sets in this opening sequence sets the stage for the remainder of the film: relentless.
Stevie is a daring-do kid, and the pounding he takes from Ian really defines his psyche. He desperately wants to fit in, but there’s nowhere for him to go. That is until he meets Ruben (Gio Galicia), a skater who is part of a smaller click. They become fast friends and is introduced to the rest of the characters that populate this small store: Ray (Na-kel), Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) and Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt). Each of the characters is given an introduction and we can’t help but laugh at these misfits, because they are all trying to be more than they are, but none of them is really succeeding.
Ray is the standout character of the click, taking Stevie under his wing. There’s a poignant moment between the two where Ray shares his background. Stevie, who feels like he has something to prove, finally realizes that his life, no matter how ugly Ian treats him or his mom, Dabney (Katherine Waterston) smothers him, he has it a lot better than the rest.
Hill creates an atmosphere, something you can very easily get in to. At the same time, it is not entirely relatable, especially the film’s outlet, the skateboard culture. Hill uses music to eschew the culture and the time. This is the strain in Hill’s script: that it relies more on the music and the culture to carry Stevie’s story; it’s not content to rely on the family life, or the group of friends that Stevie has surrounded himself with.
The movie runs a very short 84 – minutes, so the prior gripe is really just that, a gripe. The characters are so rich and so well developed. Each character, including Dabney, is suffering from an identity crisis, and that’s the crux of Hill’s story.
Hill and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt chose to shoot the film in the Academy aspect ratio (1.33:1 or 4:3; the standard format for TVs back then). This gives the illusion that we’re watching a home video of Stevie’s life, a brilliant method of storytelling for this story. They even add dirt, grain and tears to make the film look even more authentic to the time.
I’ve heard claims that Mid90s is the equivalent of Larry Clark’s Kids, but I haven’t seen that film despite wanting to buy it on VHS many times in the late 90s (see what I did there?) Since I haven’t seen Kids, I will say that this film speaks to the Empire Records moment of the era. I would even go so far as to say that it is 2018’s The Florida Project.
I was a teenager in the mid-90s, but I never experienced any of what Hill’s film purports. Yet, many of my contemporaries did. I think I was a self-sheltered kid myself, which is why when Hill presents us with the actions that Stevie brings on himself, my tailbone cringed because you knew what was coming.
On the other hand, you might remember my gripe from a few paragraphs a go?
Those were the strongest moments of the film because they make Stevie’s character so much richer. Sunny, who played Tarby Corrigan in The House with a Clock in Its Walls and starred in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer last year, was the perfect choice for Stevie because he matches Jonah Hill’s personality: he’s introspective, yet a troublemaker but deep down, we know he has a soul.
You’ll be thinking about this film long after you’ve left the theater. You might not like it, but it definitely has a soul, and that’s exactly why I’d recommend Mid90s.
Now in theaters, Mid90s is rated R.