‘Mid90s:’ Hill’s Debut Should Have Stayed in the 90’s

Rating: 1.5/4

Nostalgia is on the menu today, but it shouldn’t be. Mid90s is a film that was always going to be difficult for many to connect with personally, even for me who grew up during that period. Still, I suspect that even with the film dutifully basking in the music, posters, and fashion of the era, it won’t connect with many others of the mid-90’s no matter their background.

The film opens with Stevie’s (Sunny Suljic) body tossed into a hallway, while his brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) throws hands at him. 13-year old Stevie’s family life is hellish, living with an abusive older brother in a single parent household. His mother, Dabney (Katherine Waterston), is a tireless worker who’s lost touch with both of the “maturing” boys living under her roof.

The film doesn’t hit its stride, until it departs from this family life and often sinks when it returns. Mostly, because director Jonah Hill never fully sketches out Ian’s character and the abusive scenes involving Stevie are often too—for little reason—visceral.

The camaraderie and the dynamic of the skateboarding sub-culture that Stevie joins is far more attractive. Hill introduces these characters, Ray (Na-kel Smith), Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), and Reuben (Gio Galicia) and meticulously maps out their reasons for skating. The best scenes are when these dynamics are at odds with each other, such as Ray’s future aims of going pro running divergent from Fuckshit’s “life is good, so why try for anything more” mentality. But these characters don’t reach their zenith because once again, there’s something missing in the screenplay.

The dark side of Stevie’s new group is the quickness he must age to catch up with these older figures. Stevie begins to drink, smoke, steal, and curse. And while Ray is meant to act as the calmer voice, he essentially does the minimum. In fact, Hill does the minimum as well because he never examines Stevie or any of his other characters’ actions as more than saying, ‘we’re all fucked up in some way.’ There’s a level above pure documentation, above assembling the relics of a different era and cataloging them across the space of a screen, and Hill never reaches it.

It should also be noted that slurs against those of the LGBTQ community were common during the period, all one has to do is watch an episode of Jerry Springer. However, Springer was an extreme of the 90’s. It was made to be cartoonish. Mid90s treats it as though it were gospel documentary, and takes on many of the least tasteful examples of such. Sure, some slurs are to be expected for coloring purposes, but here they’re indiscriminately tossed.

The Jerry Springer sideshow goes into full swing when Stevie has his first sexual encounter with a girl at a party. Suljic looks like he’s 11 or 12, while the girl looks 18. It’s essentially a rape scene hiding under the guise of art. And while the scene isn’t explicit, I wonder how it would have been perceived if the roles and ages were reversed. Sadly, there’s nothing constructive toward the story for this “rite of passage” to be included. It’s purely there as wish fulfillment when there should be no wish. I nearly walked out of the theater. If I didn’t have to write about, I would have.

Jonah Hill’s directorial debut is brave, and at least, he had the common decency to try an original story rather than a fourth remake, but it’s still reckless. It never quite comes together because Hill’s focus is split between an “edgy” documentary of the period and a coming of age story where the lead never quite comes of age. In fact, neither does Hill as most of the humor is homophobic, glib, and bordering on creepy. Mid90s gets the look right, but never finds the spirit.

An official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF): 2018.

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