Jonah Hill is an artist who continues to surprise me. Far removed from the days of Superbad and even Wolf of Wall Street, the Oscar-nominated actor has turned in an exceptionally impressive film with Mid90s. Working behind the camera as both writer and director, Hill makes a debut that is instantly gripping, fun, but most of all, honest. There’s something inherently pure about the film, from its soundtrack to its characters to its setting. Mid90s is a perfect snapshot of what it meant to be a young man back in the pre-digital age.
The movie is centered on Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a minuscule 13 year-old who comes from a troubled home. He lives with an abusive, hostile older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges), who wails on him often, and their mother (Katherine Waterston) who struggles to pay the bills (every character in Mid90s is lower class) and be there for her sons. Lacking any sort of father figure in his life, Stevie at first looks up to and wants to be like his older brother, beatings or not. When Ian leaves the house, Stevie goes into his room, admires his clothing, runs his hands over his shoes, and tries on his hats. He also makes sure to jot down the names of all the music Ian listens to.
Eventually though, Stevie falls in with a skateboarding group. He finds new people to look up to, like Ray (Na-kel Smith), and, no joke, Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt). Following a conversation about whether or not black people get sunburns, Stevie earns the nickname “Sunburn” and joins the group of friends. It’s in this group of young friends that Mid90s finds its soul. The genuine camaraderie and warmth between the boys will feel so real that it’ll make you long for the days when there was nothing else in the world to do but sit around and spend time with your friends.
Sunny Suljic as Stevie is breathtaking, but the entire cast is simply phenomenal. I feel as though legitimately talented child actors have made a resurgence in the past few years, and Mid90s snatched up a good amount of them. Every character feels real and their respective performances are honest. The film is at its best when the boys are just hanging around talking – there’s a relaxed approach to it that makes it come across completely natural and genuine. As inappropriate and offensive as their choice of language is, it’s an uncensored portrayal of how these young and impoverished young men would talk, especially when growing up in the grip of toxic masculinity.
Speaking of which, toxic masculinity is what seems to be at the heart of the whole film. We can assume it’s what drove Stevie’s father away, it’s what causes Ian to beat up on his little brother, it’s what makes the skating group talk the way they do and say the things they say (Stevie is told that it’s gay to say “thank you”), and it’s what causes a rift in the group later on. It’s all fun and games until it’s not, and the film takes a sudden jarring drop into more dramatic territory in its second half, unflinchingly showing the consequences of delinquency and relentless partying/intoxication, and how the pressures of wanting to grow up and act like the common perception of how a man should act drive those decisions.
It’s heartbreaking to witness Stevie, a truly tiny kid who starts off simply eager to please and make actual friends, a kid who screams with delight over landing his first skateboard trick, a kid who shakes with nerves the first time he so much as kisses a girl, devolve into an angry young man who chugs down as many drinks as he can, gets into fights, and screams at his mother. The sweet, innocent kid at the beginning is still buried down there somewhere, but he’s drowning in his own loneliness and anger. Anyone can relate to Stevie or the others and their trauma; the hardships of adolescence and growing up feeling alone and misunderstood with no discernible life direction.
Mid90s says a lot without saying much at all. The emotions are all told through simple facial expressions rather than having the characters speak and spell it all out for the audience. It’s a short film that makes the most use of its time, never having any scenes drag or feel rushed, and it’s conclusion somehow manages to resolve everything without actually resolving anything at all. Jonah Hill has made a truly wonderful debut film that feels very personal and genuine. The performances are outstanding from the entirety of the cast and the honesty within them all is something special. This movie is a nostalgic trip that’ll force you to harp back on simpler times, and the good and bad that went with it all.
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Mid90s is a nostalgic throwback to growing up in the time before the internet, beautifully told through the eyes of a poor, lonely thirteen year old and his group of outcast friends. It’s honest, emotional without ever being cheesy, and moving. Jonah Hill delivers an electrifying debut.
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