Mid90s may be a movie about adolescence, but the movie itself feels like an adolescent top. Shot on 16mm film in a 4:3 aspect ration, Mid90s drifts between a strikingly mature directorial debut from actor Jonah Hill and a clunky film full of first-timer mistakes.
An example of the former occurs shortly after young protagonist Stevie (Sunny Suljic) watches his bully of an older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) sulk away from a fight with his newfound skate punk friends.
From the first scene, the movie establishes Ian as a violent constant in Stevie’s life, bossing the boy around the house and punishing little brother insolence with his fists. More than their haggard single mother (Katherine Waterston), Ian teaches Stevie about what matters in the world and where he belongs: in Ian’s shadow or under his fists.
But after falling in with a group of adolescent skateboarders — including wise beyond his years Ray (Na-Kel Smith), burgeoning party boy Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), aspiring filmmaker Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), and the group’s insecure former youngest member Ruben (Gio Galicia) — Stevie discovers a new family and a new identity, one separate from Ian’s limitations.
Nowhere is this more clear than when Ian accidentally bumps into Fuckshit on the street. Ian initially responds with anger, but then sheepishly backs away from the smaller but more aggressive Fuckshit, all while Stevie watches from the sidelines.
Ian later tries to reassert his dominance when the two boys sit on the couch playing video games. A smirk sneaks onto Stevie’s face as Ian boasts about what he could have done, both brothers silently acknowledging of his impotence. Desperate to retain power over Stevie, Ian changes tactics and describes their mother’s carefree and sexually active life before the boy’s birth. It isn’t clear if the woman Ian describes is happier or better now, but Stevie realizes that she’ll never know that person, that his brother has knowledge and experience about their family that he’ll never have. Just when Stevie thought he learned all he needed to know about his family, Ian knocks it away again, setting him back to little ignorant brother status.
It’s a fantastic moment, wonderfully performed by the ever reliable Hedges (who’s not acting against type as much as it may seem) and newcomer Suljic, and shot with confidence by Hill and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt. The camera takes the perspective of the television on which the boys play their game, slowly pushing in as Ian loses controller over his brother and then slowly pulling back as Stevie accepts his ignorance. Hill lets his actors work, subtely letting the camera underscore the weight of the scene without getting too flashy or heavy.
But for every accomplished moment, Mid90s has another that falls utterly flat. A pan over the pop-culture accoutremont’s in Stevie’s room remind viewers who forgot the movie’s title of the movie’s setting, comedian Jarrod Carmichael shows up as a security guard for an extended profane riff with the skaters, and the beatiful score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross too often gives way to pop songs that spell out the movie’s theme.
Worse, Hill frequently overstuffs his story, frequently abandoning interesting plot threads to chase tired character beats. Despite solid work by Hedges and Waterston, all of the family drama feels rote, and potentially unique ideas about Ray’s commitment to escaping poverty and the racial/economic mix of the skate group gets buried under clunky jealousy plots.
The most tone deaf scene occurs when Stevie has a sexual experience with an older local girl. A wonderfully composed shot, with a sillohette of the girl’s head in the frame’s upper left contrasting against Stevie’s clearly uncomfortable little boy face, hints at a sensitive take on a troubling scene. But Hill lets the moment devolve into boasting and high fives, going for an easy joke instead of necessary introspection.
But as frustrating as these failures can be, the movie’s flashes of brilliance keep the viewer interested and hungry for more. Below the anecdotes about punks making trouble and family squabbles are flashes of a great film.
In that way, the structure of Mid90s matches its theme. These kids are desperate for their lives to mean something, to find the monumental from the mundane. It doesn’t always work, but there’s reason enough here to believe that these kids — and Hill the filmmaker — will mature into something great.