If you walked blindly into any part of Mid90s – that is without knowing anything about it, and especially not its title – it would take no more than two minutes for you to realize where and when you are. From the opening scene in a room lined with Air Jordans and CD racks, to the background beats of 2Pac and N.W.A, there’s no point in Jonah Hill’s directorial debut that feels out of touch with the times it honors. On paper, those times weren’t too long ago, but as Hill’s almost obsessive attention to detail turn certain kinds of shoes and socks, music, and video games into artifacts, Mid90s becomes less of a visitation, and more of a transportation into this awkward era.
And awkward it is. Or at least awkward it has become. Cringe-worthy slang, grooming, and clothing styles encompass the world 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) wants desperately to breach. At the beginning of his coming-of-age tale, he needs friends, badly. He’s routinely beaten by his brother, Ian – played by Lucas Hedges, who’s proving himself to be quite a versatile performer – and ignored by his mother, Dabney (Katherine Waterston), who’s more interested in chasing men than raising children.
His attempts to escape his home push him towards a skateboard shop, where four older kids take refuge, using vulgar lingo and shredding out back, aimlessly existing. Prepubescent Stevie, whose small stature and harmless smile alone separate him from the punk attitude these other boys exhibit, wants to be a part of the group, and with the help of the slightly older Ruben (Gio Galicia), he becomes one.
With these skaters, Stevie runs through the typical teenage checklist (weed, beer, girls, etc.) perhaps a bit too early, while also taking a piece of life advice from each of them. Some is better than others – while Ruben tells him that thanking people is “gay,” Ray (Na-kel Smith), the best skater and leader of the pack, makes sure Stevie understands all what skating can do – but all of it contributes to Stevie figuring out who he is.
Mid90s isn’t flooded with plot – which only becomes an issue once a clichéd incident towards the end nearly makes the film insincere – but the collection of moments that make up Stevie’s youth are totally human, or totally teenager. The time and location – 1990s L.A. – serve more to parallel the frantic and confusing experience of adolescence than to provide generational nostalgia (at one point, Stevie, almost sidestepping the trope of youthful rebellion, rushes into a gas station’s restroom, chugs liquid soap and sprays air freshener all over to mask the cigarette stench on his clothes). The ultimate irony of the film’s title is that its best and truest observations are timeless.
This isn’t to say that writer/director Hill doesn’t drop references to the times into his film. He does, a lot. ut they are subtle, never intruding on the its minuscule story which, at 86 minutes, is focused and attentive. Born and raised in Los Angeles, the director sticks to what he knows, a characteristic that helps add another level of authenticity to the somewhat autobiographical project.
Another comes from its young stars, all of whom I wouldn’t be surprised to learn were born after 1999. Suljic (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) is the only one of the bunch with ample screen experience, but all of the boys handle themselves well, given that the bulk of the film’s sincerest insights are based on the complications of their friendship; a primary example comes with Ruben, who was excited at first to have someone beneath him in the pack, but who quickly becomes jealous of Stevie once the newbie’s made a mascot for the pack.
Hill’s script is solid, built around endearing and convincing friendships, and there are a couple moments of pure beauty as the boys weave down the street on their boards at dusk. But Mid90s is one of the rare movies these days that could actually use a few more minutes; Hill has the wisdom to recognize that wrapping things up with a bow would not fit his picture, but there are some aspects of the group’s turmoils that are left unfinished. It’s not a question of ambiguity, it’s a lack of completion. But for a first go around, this is quite an achievement.
Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, Mid90s, offers a resonating perspective of adolescence that thrives off of its titular setting instead of relying too heavily on nostalgia.