‘Mid90s’: Teen Spirit Thrives in Jonah Hill’s Directorial Debut

In Featured, Movie Reviews, Renard Bansale, Reviews by Impact Admin

(2018—Director: Jonah Hill)

— by Renard N. Bansale

(out of 5 stars) 

“You literally take the hardest hits out of anybody I’ve ever seen in my life. You know you don’t have to do that, right?” — Ray (Na-kel Smith) to Stevie (Sunny Suljic)

Potential spoilers below

A common adage heard in every writing class is “Write what you know”. Such advice is crucial for first-time filmmakers. Included in that category is the 34-year-old Jonah Hill. Hill has ascended from acting in risqué comedies like Superbad, Get Him to the Greek, and 21 Jump Street to award-nominated performances in Moneyball, The Wolf of Wall Street, and War Dogs. Such experience now encourages him to step behind the camera with Mid90s, a capsule look at the laid-back yet reckless world of his youth. A somewhat bare and heavily mature slice-of-life anchored by Sunny Suljic’s lead turn, captured on 16mm film like a quaint CRTV, and featuring an eclectic soundtrack of urban deep cuts from the era, Mid90s serves as a solid first step on a new path in Jonah Hill’s career.

13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) suffers quietly through his turbulent home life in 1990s Los Angeles. His young single mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston) rotates through men in search of a stable love life. His older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) inspires Stevie with his late ‘80s and early ‘90s pop culture merchandise and memorabilia, yet he also torments him (as older brothers do) while butting heads constantly with their mother. Stevie becomes fascinated by, and soon befriends, a group of skateboarding teenagers, including leader Ray (Na-kel Smith), “F.S.” (Olan Prenatt; initials used here stand for real in-movie nickname, which combines two major obscenities), “Fourth Grade” (Ryder McLaughlin), and Ruben (Gio Galicia). Now dubbed “Sunburn” by his new friends, Stevie enters a world of excitement as well as danger.

Writer-director Jonah Hill lists as inspiration for Mid90s works such as 1995’s Kids, 2006’s This Is England, 1999’s Ratcatcher (debut of Lynne Ramsay, who helmed You Were Never Really Here from earlier this year), and even 1993’s The Sandlot (F.S.’s nickname reminds one of Sandlot’s “Yeah Yeah”, played by Marty York). All those movies, despite their diverse time settings, were made through the lens of concurrent ‘90s and early 2000s pop culture. Recent works like Sing Street, It, and Ready Player One served as more fond emulations of ‘80s pop culture. Mid90s, meanwhile, comes off as a pioneer in confronting the reality of ‘90s America as an urban wasteland, burnt out by ‘80s excess and filled with kids yearning for fulfillment—or at least, new ways to pass time—through risky adventure. It was no mistake that extreme sports like skateboarding made their breakthroughs in this decade.

Yet while the skateboarding lifestyle alone suits most, some like Na-kel Smith’s Ray consider the possibility of skating as a career. To Stevie and the rest, he embodies the lifestyle with skill and style. Ray did not, however, become group leader (sans nickname) because he was the dumbest, the laziest, or the most reckless. It was because he was himself without fear. He also sees his friends without overlooking their fatal flaws, recognizing that they might be holding him back from a promising career as a professional skateboarder.

As Stevie, Sunny Suljic (the son in The Killing of a Sacred Deer) makes for the ideal blank slate for receiving these insights from the supporting characters. Ruben stands out early as the one who brings in Stevie, giving up his status as the “young kid” of the group and thus the very thing to help him become the center of attention. Hill, d.p. Christopher Blauvelt, and editor Nick Houy (Lady Bird) call attention to Ruben’s jealousy for Stevie well at first, yet Hill decides to stick primarily to Ray’s effect on Stevie soon afterwards, leaving little for Stevie to digest from the rest. His mother Dabney struggles to connect with Stevie, yet she surrenders him to his friends. His brother Ian offers blunt advice from a position of superiority, which is all he has given his apparent and odd lack of friends. Lastly, while F.S. parties hard by himself, Hill could have connected the timid Fourth Grade’s interest in filmmaking to the surging independent cinema scene of that time. Divesting some of Ray’s observations to the other supporting characters confessing themselves to Stevie would have given Mid90s additional balance and fill.

Perhaps this restraint will confine Mid90s to a hidden gem status in later years. Hill’s debut, despite the realistic and era-accurate adult content packed into its 84-minute runtime, is comforting compared to the compact yet electrifying tension of Gustav Möller’s debut The Guilty from earlier this year. Hill succeeds most in pioneering the naked and cynical gaze back towards that decade sandwiched between ‘80s excess and the internet-driven ‘00s—a decade cherished by many (including this reviewer) as an unforgettable pop culture gold mine. Moreover, he accomplishes this in the same year that he stars in Netflix’s Maniac and gives yet another Oscar-worthy supporting performance in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.

May 2018 serve as a launchpad for Jonah Hill and his collaborators to rise to further artistic success, both in front of and behind the camera.

(Parental Note: Mid90s has been rated R by the MPAA for “pervasive language, sexual content, drug and alcohol use, and some violent behavior/disturbing images—all involving minors”.)


About the Author

Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.

For more movie reviews by Renard, click here