‘Mid90s’ Review: Jonah Hill’s Soulful Directorial Debut Is a Gem

     October 19, 2018

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Add Jonah Hill’s name to the list of actors who have made the successful jump to full-blown director. Two Oscar nominations and a bevy of scene-stealing comedic roles into his career, Hill has written and directed an ambitious, assured, and rich gem of a movie in Mid90s. The film takes no shortcuts as Hill charts the coming-of-age story of a young boy in the mid 1990s, and he does so with such a confident touch that you’d swear he’d learned from the best. And of course he has, from Martin Scorsese to the Coen Brothers to Bennett Miller, but what’s maybe most impressive about mid90s is that it feels like a film all his own. Hill is doing no imitations here as he stakes out what’s sure to be a long career as a filmmaker with a film that is equal parts sweet and sour.

Mid90s opens with a beating. We see Stevie (Sunny Suljic) being thrown out of his room right into a wall by his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). It’s clear there’s an abusive relationship going on here, and when Ian leaves for the day he yells at Stevie not to touch his stuff. Of course once Ian leaves, the first thing Stevie does is go into Ian’s room—but not to mess with his things or seek retaliation. Instead, Stevie simply walks around and admires his older brother’s clothes, CDs, and weight set. Despite the contentious relationship, he looks up to him. He’s searching for a role model.

But Ian remains closed off, so Stevie is forced to look elsewhere. This is when he finds a group of skater kids that he immediately wants to befriend. Stevie barters for his brother’s old board and teaches himself how to skate, then introduces himself to the group. There’s the de facto leader Ray (Na-kel Smith), who’s cool, confident, and the best skater of the bunch; there’s the loudmouth “Fuckshit” (Olan Prenatt), full of charisma but short on drive; there’s “Fourth Grade” (Ryder McLaughlin), so-named for his perceived lack of intelligence but always with a video camera in his hand; and then there’s Ruben (Gio Galicia), the youngest of the bunch and the one who first befriends Stevie.

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Image via A24

Much like the early films of Richard Linklater or Harmony Korine, mid90s is light on plot but heavy on character. It’s a hangout movie of sorts, but Hill’s original script imbues the story with plenty of drama and an engaging, surprising character arc for Stevie. Through his eyes, we see his desire to fit in, to belong, to be loved. He and his brother live with their single mother (Katherine Waterston), who had Ian when she was just 18. She loves Stevie, but is absent a lot of the time. In a rare moment of candor, Ian confesses to Stevie that their mother was very different to him when he was his age.

Despite the sunny aesthetic and good-times had by Stevie’s new friend group, there’s an undercurrent of tragedy running throughout Mid90s. Hill dials it in just right—a glance here, a knowing nod there—so that when the film finally starts to reveal some of the heartbreak inside the characters, it’s all well established. Everyone is broken, everyone has their own baggage. This is a hard lesson to learn at any age, but feels especially tough for Stevie (who is 12 but looks closer to 10). In a way, Mid90s is a film about kids raising kids—even Stevie’s mom is lacking in the maturity you’d potentially find in some older mothers, but that doesn’t mean she loves Stevie any less.

The performances are the beating heart of Mid90s, and a massive amount of credit goes to Hill’s direction. Aside from Suljic, who had a memorable turn in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and who’s fantastic in Mid90s, the other main characters are played by non-professional actors. You’d never know it, as Hill draws an honesty from each performance that shines through. These characters feel alive, and while Hill certainly shows he knows how to tell a story visually, performances—especially from non-professionals—are a vital aspect of directing that some people just don’t have the skill for. Hill’s got it.

But he’s also got style. Mid90s is presented entirely in 4:3 ratio, and it’s all to do with world building. While some films draw on nostalgia to evoke a feeling or to simply choose a cool backdrop, the 1990s are a crucial aspect of the story being told here. This is the world in which Stevie lives, and if that world isn’t brought to life in the right way, the story might feel false.

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Image via A24

The aspect ratio evokes the way most people watched television or home movies in the 1990s, and I was delighted to even see a few scratches you’d find on films that are actually projected on film, not digital. The soundtrack, it must be said, is killer (tracks range from Nirvana to The Cure), and every crucial detail is absolutely true to what it was like to grow up during this decade.

And then there’s the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. This is like nothing they’ve done before—it’s wonderfully diverse in nature, with a piano-driven main theme but also a few delightful detours into other styles. It’s very different from their work with David Fincher, but suggests an eagerness to play around with various styles while still providing exactly what this specific film needs. It’s fun, haunting, and moving in equal measure.

The film goes to some dark places, and I found myself wanting a little bit more on Hedges’ character to better understand where he was coming from (and in a surprise to no one, Hedges once again proves himself a phenomenally talented chameleon here). Regardless, this is a story told through Stevie’s eyes and the film delivers tremendously when it comes to his character arc and that of his newfound friendship. Moreover, while Stevie’s story is rooted in skate culture, Hill does a terrific job of making the story at once specific and universal. You don’t have to have been a skater kid to understand what it feels like to not belong.

Directing is hard. Not everyone has it in them to do it well, but Hill proves with mid90s that he’s not just competent—he’s talented. He was able to craft something that’s entirely his own, with a specific but motivated style. And while it’s quite intimate and small in nature, it certainly bodes well for his future as a filmmaker. Mid90s is a gem of a movie. It feels like something deeply personal that was shot in the titular time period and only recently was unearthed out of a time capsule. It’s been waiting all this time to be seen. A secret of sorts that’s a little funny, a little dark, and a little sweet, but relatable all the same.

Rating: B+

Mid90s is now playing in limited release.

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