Mid90s is written by Jonah Hill; it’s his directorial debut. The film stars Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges, and Katherine Waterston.
In the mid 1990s, young Stevie struggles in his day-to-day life. He’s regularly beaten up by his bully of an older brother who he’s unable to please, and is often neglected by his single mother, who seems more interested in dating men than the care of her children. During his travels around Los Angeles, he stumbles across a skate shop and a group of skaters hanging out there. He quickly becomes friends with them, and finds a surrogate family of sorts away from his mundane and often abusive home life. But in life with his new friends, the once-sheltered Stevie begins smoking, drinking, experimenting with drugs, having sexual experiences, and lashing out at his family. Will his path of self-destruction have disastrous consequences?
This comedy-drama marks the feature film directorial debut of Jonah Hill, an actor known over the past decade primarily for his roles in straight-up comedic films, in which his portrayals of characters are often a highlight. With Mid90s as a film taking on a more dramatic tone (though certainly still comedic in places), I certainly had my doubts as to whether a first-time director, let alone one known for primarily comedy roles, could tackle the subject matter.
Doubts shattered. Mr. Hill proves himself up for the task, and I hope it won’t be the last time we see him in the director’s chair. The film’s cast is absolutely perfect, and the period piece beautifully recaptures a bygone era. At times the “slice of life” approach suffers from a somewhat choppy narrative, but overall, the good far outweighs the bad.
The true standout in the movie is Sunny Suljic. Just 13, the young actor brilliantly does justice to a wayward young man lacking a positive home life seeking acceptance elsewhere, with violent and turbulent results. The transformation he undergoes is heartbreaking, hilarious, and perhaps most importantly, believable. Despite his young age, this young man has plenty of roles under his belt already. It will be interesting to see where he goes in the years to come on the big screen, but I hope we continue to see him doing what he does best.
Supporting cast members include Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) as the abusive older brother, and Katherine Waterston as their mother. The young actors portraying troublesome skaters feel authentic in their performances, and their chemistry and camaraderie with Suljic’s character makes for a fantastic on-screen relationship. Films about a neglected youth falling in with a dangerous crowd are nothing new, but Mid90s is unique in that it truly brings these relationships and characters to life. As detestable as they may have been at times, I loved every character this movie threw my way.
Hill and company deserve credit for creating a fantastic and believable atmosphere of a long-gone era, long before the days of smart phones and social media. The film spares no expense of letting you know when it’s set, with references ranging from Beavis and Butt-Head and Ren and Stimpy to the Super Nintendo and Street Fighter. The soundtrack is period-appropriate as well. If you grew up in this era, like I did, these references and little atmospheric touches will definitely hit close to home. The mood of the film plays a balancing act between comedy and drama, and everything flows together nicely.
If there’s one weakness in the movie, it’s that it feels like snapshots of a bigger story. The “slice of life” approach works well for the material, but we as an audience can’t help but feel like there’s more to this story than what we’re seeing unfold on film. At one point it’s mentioned Stevie has been friends with the skate punks for “months,” but it feels more like days or only a handful of weeks due to the approach taken. I believe Hill was right in keeping the run time short, concise, and to-the-point, but I gladly would’ve spent more time with this cast of characters in this 1990s setting. Perhaps the eventual home video release will offer some deleted scenes?
A word of caution for parents: Although the main character of the film is a young man, this is NOT a film for kids. Our young hero drinks, smokes, does drugs, has sexual experiences, talks back, lashes out, and faces injuries and dangers. It’s a great film for its target audience, but earns its R rating. Leave the little ones at home. The fact that a character in the film is named “Fuck Shit” should tell you all you need to know.
Mid90s does have a few flaws with its narrative structure, but it more than makes up for any shortcomings thanks to the excellent performances from the cast, the recreation of the 90s atmosphere, and the genuine character relationships and drama interchanged with laugh-out-loud humor. Jonah Hill’s directorial debut is no disappointment, and definitely stands as one of my favorite films of 2018 so far. Very highly recommended!
Rating: Three-and-a-half stars out of four.
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