If you’ve seen any of the trailers for the film Mid90s, the directorial debut from actor Jonah Hill, you might think it a pastiche of superficial nostalgia mixed in with a fun narrative about some young punk skateboarders. I was of the same opinion, until I saw it.
Starring Sunny Suljic as Stevie, an aimless middle schooler with a gaze both dazed and bleak who lives with his distant but loving mother (Katherine Waterston) and abusive brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), the film follows his picaresque narrative as he ambles around Los Angeles in search of a home among people.
Pointless references to pop culture are—with the exception of Stevie’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles bedspread—largely absent from the film, instead replaced with mostly solid visual communication showing why Stevie makes certain decisions with his life. Yes, the 90s and skateboarding are a major part of the film, but only insofar as they serve as the backdrop for why Stevie and his group of friends get together.
His friends, who go by the names Ruben (Gio Galicia), Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), and Ray (Na-kel Smith), are rambunctious types who drink and smoke while underage spit on authority, but ultimately are not entirely ill-meaning, instead driven by their emotions. Hill writes them with believability. They are equal parts thoughtful, rude, and stupid. In other words, they’re teenagers, living their tough lives at home, and trying to make something of it at the local skate park.
Shot in 4:3, the visual aspect of the film is equal parts inspired and original. Many times, the film has a grain that makes it look as if it were made in the 2000s at the latest (I say that because many films that I’ve seen that were made circa 2000-2001 look like they were made in the 80s). But Hill deftly employs frames-within-frames, a color palette of a gritty sans glitz Los Angeles drained of all its sunny superficiality, and wide shots and close ups composed solely of movement and silence to show the viewer both what Stevie wants and what he thinks. Sunny plays him with a blank look that can change from loving to loathing in an instant. As the film goes on, the experience he goes through with his friends galvanizes him to fight back against his brother and against his mother, turning the lonely kid into one assertive of his place in the world, even though he hasn’t actually done anything except drink, smoke, and barely even learn how to ollie.
Stevie’s friends, however, are not afforded that same type of dynamic. In a pivotal scene after a chaotic sequence that sees Stevie’s family erupt, the oldest (and dopest) of the group, Ray, tells Stevie about the family troubles that all members of the group are going through. It’s a touching scene, and one that is especially relatable, at least to myself, and demonstrates to the viewer why this group is as tight as it is. But in doing so, it breaks that classic rule of show, don’t tell. Hill makes up for this by letting the viewer connect the dots by thinking about the scenes set in Stevie’s home, and imagining what might go on behind the doors of the other kids’ homes, but it leaves something to be desired.
But luckily, that is partially filled in by the performances. Equal parts touching, funny, and disgusting, the acting on display for Stevie’s friends is on point. They’re fragile, reaching for something, but all are stuck in their own unfortunate situations in one way or another.
It’s unfortunate then, that the ending of the film, which leads the viewer to think that there will be room to watch the characters change, are instead left hanging by a thread once the credits start rolling. Again, it both does and does not work. The emotional work done by the characters is complete. They probably realize that certain aspects of their freewheeling lifestyle are not beneficial to their safety, but we don’t see that play out on film, instead, we go on a literal nostalgia trip recounting the fun-and-love filled parts of their lives. It gives a bittersweet energy to the film, and certainly ends it on a high note, but I was still surprised when the film cut to black.