Film Review: mid90s

Incessant ’90s shout-outs weigh down Jonah Hill’s empathetic drama about skateboarding teens.
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Presumably because Jonah Hill fears his directorial debut’s title doesn’t properly indicate its time frame, mid90s opens with incessant nods to its chosen era. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles bed sheets. Super Nintendo controllers. Street Fighter II, Ren & Stimpyand Beavis and Buttheadt-shirts. Issues of The Score magazine. Air Jordans. Mobb Deep posters. Fat Joe CDs. Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose.” Super Soakers. It’s an aggravating barrage of nostalgia, with the film proving even more desperate to earn throwback credibility than its protagonist is to locate a clique to call his own.

Hill never completely stops with the intrusive shout-outs, but mercifully, mid90s eventually tempers them enough to let its narrative take center stage. The focus here is Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a wayward 13-year-old Los Angelino who suffers regular beatings at the hands of older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), and who falls in with a group of local skaters: level-headed leader Ray (Na-kel Smith); curly-haired, party-first Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt); poor aspiring filmmaker Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin); and resentful wannabe Ruben (Gio Galicia). They’re a raggedy crew whose trust Stevie gradually earns, both through naïve comments during profane and juvenile conversations, and by suffering a nasty skating fall that establishes his mettle—and his craziness. Before long, Stevie is drinking forties, wooing older women, and exhibiting a newfound poise and sense of self.

It’s a familiar tale of tormented adolescence in search of stability and acceptance, and Hill laces it with authentic details, most of which come via foul-mouthed scenes in which the crew simply hang out, talking smack and skating around their neighborhood. Unfortunately, it so eerily echoes two superior recent documentaries—Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap and Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen—that it also can’t help but come across as more than a tad redundant and thin. Suljic’s empathetic turn as the wounded Stevie goes some way toward alleviating that situation; two startling instances of self-harm convey the pain festering beneath the boy’s immature exterior. So too does Hedges’ bracing performance as Ian, who takes out on his younger sibling his anger toward his mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston), as well as toward himself.

Dabney’s habit of sleeping with various men is as hazily developed as she is, with Hill’s script rendering her merely an archetypal nagging-nurturing single parent. Better than mid90s’ treatment of adults is its evocation of the euphoria that comes from discovering one’s place in the world, and confidence—highlighted by Stevie’s nerve-wracked first sexual experience—as well as the way skating provides a liberating release, and a surrogate family, for these unruly teens. Throughout, Hill can’t stop calling attention to his technique—his use of a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio strives to lend the proceedings a VHS-grade aesthetic (replete with print blemishes), yet comes across as affected and illogical (1995 movies were still theatrically projected in widescreen). No matter a GoodFellas tracking shot here and telegraphed catastrophe there, though, his consideration of his characters is genuine, and poignant.The less he does as a director, the more he foregrounds his film’s anguished, defiant heart.