For the majority of his career, Jonah Hill has been known for acting in comedies such as Knocked Up, Superbad and 21 Jump Street, but has made a turn in recent years with Academy Award-nominated performances in Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street. Now, Hill’s career has branched out to working behind the camera as the writer and director of Mid90s, and while his first feature isn’t without flaws, it asks compelling questions about the titular decade and uses intriguing methods to tell its coming-of-age story.
In 1990s Los Angeles, 13-year-old Stevie escapes his turbulent home life by hanging out with a new group of friends he meets at a local skate shop, plunging him into a world of fun, danger and excitement.
Nostalgia for the 1990s is one of many current trends in popular culture today, but one trend from every twentysomething’s favorite decade that’s rarely been explored in the cinematic medium until this year has been the sport of skateboarding. Between the popularity of the X Games and the Tony Hawk video game franchise, interest in the extreme sport peaked in the decade that today is looked back on critically as the last era of its kind.
More specifically, it was a time where it was considered ‘cool’ to be edgy, carefree and rebellious, while products and Saturday morning cartoons were marketed as ‘extreme’ to capitalise on their target young demographic. But while children had a lot of fun playing their Super Nintendo game systems and going out to skateboard around town, was the carefree mentality of living life on the edge in that period a benefit or a detriment to their formative years? That’s one of the questions audiences will ask themselves while watching Mid90s, the directorial debut feature for longtime comedic-turned-dramatic actor Jonah Hill, who is looking to branch out into telling a story reflective of his own personal upbringing in the booming skate culture of mid-90s Los Angeles.
Jonah Hill’s Mid90s follows Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a thirteen-year-old boy who begins the film living out his summer in the darkness of his turbulent home, where he has an inconsistent relationship with his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). If Ian is not playing Super Nintendo with Stevie, he’s physically abusing him for stepping into his room when he’s forbidden from it. Nevertheless, when he and his single mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston) are absent from their middle-class home, Stevie ventures into his brother’s forbidden room to gawk in wonder over what he considers Ian’s otherworldly possessions; from his collection of cassette tapes to his skateboards, hoping he can one day be as cool as his brother. While meandering around his neighborhood, he encounters a group of high-school aged skateboarders, whose carefree attitude and drive to take risks immediately sucks Stevie into the nonchalant-but-reckless lifestyle of skateboard culture. Though, the naïvete of his youth keeps him from seeing how bad of an influence his new friends have turned out to be, not even when they take him places in which he’s too young to go.
While the narrative is as straightforward as it appears on paper, what makes Mid90s a solid debut for Hill as a director are the aesthetics he employs in impressive fashion. The nostalgic callbacks to the time period in which it takes place are prevalent primarily through minor details.
Take for example the use of the song “Kiss from A Rose” by Seal, which plays in an early restaurant scene where Dabney takes her sons out for dinner, or consider the soundtrack consisting of all the underground hip-hop hits in urban Los Angeles that decade. Hill throws in colorful for Stevie to wear with decade-proper pop culture iconography, including nods to Street Fighter II, Beavis and Butthead and The Ren and Stimpy Show. Meanwhile, shooting in 16-millimeter film with a 4:3 aspect ratio recreates the feeling of watching a standard definition television, not unlike those which most audiences grew up with. The cinematography also serves as a representation of the inner pressure Stevie feels to fit in with his circle of friends in order to escape his tumultuous life at home.
But unlike most coming-of-age stories, Mid90s portrays Stevie’s drive to fit in and conflicts with peer pressure in a manner that’s very raw, grounded and gritty. For a film that invokes such a pleasant feeling of nostalgia, the film is the first of its kind to portray the dark side of the era’s extreme mentality, manifesting itself here through the slice-of-life depiction of Southern California street youth. Stevie’s newfound friends curse every three words, use ethnic slurs, reject particular trends because, as one character puts it, they “don’t want to be gay.” There are also drugs and alcohol aplenty at the parties they take Stevie to as he acclimates to the group.
From the shadowy hallways of his home to the gray, washed out skate park, the locations and cinematography put the audience in the young skater’s shoes and convey an uneasy feeling about his place amongst the skating subculture. Hill’s slice-of-life storytelling also conveys the feeling one is watching something not meant to be seen; Mid90s gets tougher and tougher to watch as it follows Stevie in his most private moments, while his inner anxieties of wanting to fit in continue to build, causing subsequent confrontations from Ian and Dabney to result in more turbulence.
However, not every first-time director is perfect out of the gate. There’s a certain vagueness that surrounds Stevie’s personal life; it’s frustrating to be left wondering what his mother does, what happened to his father, if he even had one. It’s also worth noting that Mid90s clocks in at only 84 minutes long, ending suddenly without much of a resolution. The end message, however, is clear. Hill wants the audience to reflect on its adolescence, what their life was like in the nineties, and whether or not this point in humanity’s existence produced the society we have today (along with the pop culture icons treasured by today’s millennials).
Audiences will relate to Stevie as the vacant emotion he conveys in intimate instances where he knows he shouldn’t do something but chooses to, regardless of consequence, or the sake of fitting into his clique of skateboarders. Meanwhile, the pleasant synths and delicate piano from the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross will hypnotize the viewer into wanting to see where Stevie goes from beginning to end, as it conveys both his youthful innocence and his curiosity about the world around him. Mid90s is a tougher film to watch than audiences might be expecting, but it poses interesting questions and goes to gritty-but-revealing places about the skateboarding subculture and the early adolescence of its director.
It’s always remarkable when an actor branches out to telling a story behind the camera, and Mid90s is an achievement in and of itself for Jonah Hill and A24, who has done it again with another indie darling worth seeing on the big screen.