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mid90s Movie Review

mid90s (2018) movie poster mid90s

Theatrical Release: October 19, 2018 / Running Time: 84 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Jonah Hill

Cast: Sunny Suljic (Stevie "Sunburn"), Katherine Waterston (Dabney), Lucas Hedges (Ian), Na-kel Smith (Ray), Olan Prenatt (Fuckshit), Gio Galicia (Ruben), Ryder McLaughlin (Fourth Grade), Alexa Demie (Estee), Fig Camila Abner (Angela), Liana Perlich (Teresa), Ama Elesser (Zoe), Teren "Del the Funky Homosapien" Jones (Homeless Man #1), Chad Muska (Homeless Man #2)


Jonah Hill rose to prominence as part of Judd Apatow's collective of funny young actors. Fellow members of that group Seth Rogen and Jason Segel advanced themselves by writing movies like Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall and then starring in them. Hill hasn't taken or needed that route, instead seizing outside opportunities
like the memorable roles in Bennett Miller's Moneyball and Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street that both earned him unexpected Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor. He has remained in demand largely by being good in good movies, a class in which many would include 21 Jump Street, War Dogs, and This Is the End. Now, in perhaps a move that most directly recalls Greta Gerwig's universally beloved Lady Bird last year, Hill makes the leap to writer-director not to land a good part but to dramatize his own personal experiences in a coming-of-age movie distributed by young clout factory A24.

mid90s does not strike you as complete autobiography, but the titular setting and the fact that the protagonist is a 13-year-old Angeleno are two big clues that Hill, born in 1983, is drawing from his upbringing and fictionalizing the real universe in which he grew up. You may or may not love Hill's directorial debut, but you've got to admit he has written something authentic and personal from his heart and memories.

Stevie (Sunny Suljic, most recently seen in a supporting role in The House with a Clock in Its Walls) is a short, quiet kid who looks about 11. Our introduction finds him at the receiving end of punches from his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges, playing against the friendly gay type of his previous two movies). Stevie is kind of in awe of his 18-year-old big brother. When Ian is out, Stevie sneaks into his room and writes down the names of the rap CDs he has. Maybe that is just to buy a birthday present that Ian won't appreciate. Stevie doesn't seem to take after his orange juice-loving loner of a sibling in any other way.

In "mid90s", undersized 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic, bottom right) becomes the fifth member of a group of skateboarder friends.

Stevie pops into a skateboard shop, where with a minimum of effort he finds himself welcomed into a group of friends consisting of four slightly older skate enthusiasts. There are the cool de facto leaders Ray (Na-kel Smith) and Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), the casually homophobic Ruben (Gio Galicia), and the quiet aspiring filmmaker they call Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin).

Swiping $80 from the dresser drawer of his single mother (Katherine Waterston), Stevie gives half to Ian and uses the other half to upgrade his dated dinosaur-themed board for something better and fresher. Practicing in the driveway at all hours of the night, Stevie, who is given the nickname Sunburn by the group out of a discussion barely involving him, begins spending all of his summer days boarding with the boys. They're not the finest of role models and soon "Sunburn" is smoking cigarettes, drinking booze, and engaging in dangerous stunts.

That is about as far as Hill takes the narrative. He develops some ideas: a rivalry between our protagonist and the apparently threatened Ruben, Mom telling the others to stay away from her son, some building conflict between Ray and Fuckshit. Little of it gets seen through or resolved in any way. Hill would rather just reflect on adolescent rites of passage, whether he's revisiting his own encounters or rewriting them to make him seem like the coolest little barely teen in all of '90s California. At a party, Stevie fingers a girl who is uncomfortably older and more experienced than him. His brother wears a Bill Clinton mask and punches him in the night after the young'un won't take any blame for the dresser drawer theft. There's a close call with the cops, who patrol a courthouse lot appreciated by trespassing skaters in fits. And there's an accident which drives the final act and serves to distract the less engaged from the story's many loose ends.

At home, Stevie (Sunny Suljic) and his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) play 16-bit video games and talk about their mom in the mid-1990s.

All the while, Hill serves up the things that made the '90s what they were for him as a kid turned teenager in California. Mostly, that manifests in music, which predominantly is of the not-quite-mainstream hip hop variety.
The dilligently assembled soundtrack features tunes from The Pharcyde, Gravediggaz, A Tribe Called Quest, Souls of Mischief, and GZA that have mostly aged well and not become played out, especially not in film. A rapper few will recognize as Del the Funky Homosapien has a cameo as a thoughtful homeless man.

Reflecting the title, the movie places an importance on the era, which may be lost on those who didn't come of age around the same time that Hill did. For that matter, the allure of Stevie and his friends' way of life may be lost on those whose adolescence didn't involve skate parks. Hill nostalgizes and glamorizes this clique that he personally must have belonged in to some degree. He seems to be channeling young Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused with a much more narrow and less universal focus. None of the wisdom and little of the wit of Linklater's more mature films, like the Before series and Boyhood, makes the cut here. Running just 80 minutes plus credits, mid90s is brisk and never uninteresting even when it's uncomfortable or immature, which it often can be.

Still, in his first time in the director's chair at any length, Hill displays competency and flair, with the promise of more to come. He opts for more of an arthouse aesthetic than you'd expect of an actor whose filmography is almost completely mainstream. Shooting on Super 16 and using the long antiquated, former television standard aspect ratio of 1.33:1, Hill distances his work as an auteur from the technically straightforward movies he's known for. It likens the proceedings more to things like David Gordon Green's George Washington, Larry Clark's Kids, and Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild than Superbad.

The results are better than average but nowhere near as rewarding and life-affirming as, say, Gerwig's Lady Bird. The movie is hindered by the fact that Hill is either unable or uninterested to write characters who aren't juvenile boys with a penchant for mischief. The mother's few scenes don't resonate or ring true, Ian expresses himself only through silence and violence, and the closest we get to a heartfelt, insightful monologue feels out of place coming from Ray's mouth.

After a strong opening in just four theaters last weekend, mid90s expands now and will continue to do that in the coming weeks. It's both too small and not good enough to compete for major awards the way that Lady Bird did, but I expect it to turn up on the Independent Spirit Awards' radars and to compete both there and at the Directors Guild for Best First Feature honors.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Beautiful Boy Boy Erased The Hate U Give The House with a Clock in Its Walls
Lady Bird White Boy Rick Eighth Grade American Honey Florida Project
Sunny Suljic: The Killing of a Sacred Deer | Lucas Hedges: Manchester by the Sea | Katherine Waterston: Inherent Vice
Written by Jonah Hill: 21 Jump Street Sausage Party

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Reviewed October 25, 2018.

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