“Why are you always filming stuff?”
Mid90s takes place during the dog days of a defining Los Angeles Summer, and the title alone gives us enough guidance without dropping the equivalent of an iPhone pin for a precise time and location. TV’s are still box sets. Kids are still tethered to their game consoles through a cord. “Kiss From a Rose” plays in the background during an awkward dinner at a hibachi grill. Mid90’s doesn’t dress these time capsule memories in nostalgia either; the story is an outlet for its filmmaker to skate through his recollection of a bruised and bullied and bloodied past. The end result is inspiring with its cinematic eye and is as intensely intimate as it is careful in its handling of young, fragile characters who don’t mind crashing hard. At least then they feel something.
Short in stature and packing a gigantic sense of curiosity for the world around him, the 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) rides his bike looking for a place and tribe to swear a blood oath to. He sees kids his size and close to his age playing with squirt guns, with one holding the crown jewel Super Soaker 50, the equivalent of a Nimbus 2000 in Harry Potter. He’s unimpressed. Then up the sidewalk a ways Stevie watches a quartet of rebellious skaters. They’re reckless, they flirt with older women, they flip their boards with grace and land with thunder. Stevie smiles in adoration, shortly trading out his trusty bike for a new “Kick, Push” mode of transportation. Kids and teenagers – and too many adults – behave a certain way because it directly contradicts what they’ve been told do. Stevie is no exception. At a certain point, you’ll do anything and break every imaginable rule at the cost of having allies. Whether or not it’s worthwhile depends on the people we surround ourselves with.
Stevie’s big brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) is more of a larger than life myth than he is a fully-realized sibling. Ian works out aggressively, bans his little brother from setting foot in his room, and mysteriously chugs from a gallon of orange juice as if it were the nectar of life (I never understood this minor detail, although it is unforgettably bizarre). The stellar opening sequence suggests their Mom (Katherine Waterston) just recently got separated. All three of them are in pain, but they’re all so different and hurt and closed off that they can’t communicate their shared truths. That’s what friends are for, even if for Stevie that means following the missteps of a guy named Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) or looking up to the kind-eyed and more talented skater Ray (Na-kel Smith).
When you hear the term “period piece,” Mid90s isn’t quite the Victorian era production that might pop up in your head. Corsets have become baggy jeans. Live string sections are now crackling cassette tapes. Fine dining has been transformed into a 7-Eleven gas station eatery. That’s what makes Jonah Hill’s stunning directorial debut so substantial and so studied. It’s art imitating life with believably organic interactions. Hill is a natural behind the camera, brimming with confidence and film knowledge, and he directs a cast of mostly non-actors to really raw, charismatic, empathetic performances. Even the most seasoned directors struggle with that task.
Maybe Hill’s success comes from essentially telling his own life story here (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ shattering score helps take the film to new heights), yet Mid90s sells camaraderie at an accessible, wholesale price and offers a shoulder to lean on ever after the times have already gotten rough. I’d call it angry and violent and scared, but that’d only undermine how joyful and caring and considerate a ride it really is. Mid90s is the kind of movie you might arrogantly scoff at or resist if you’re in your teens, and I think it’s the kind most adults will only come to fully appreciate as they become more aware of and attuned to time’s ticking hands. Maybe that’s the point and the power of Mid90s. It’s a reverie, a specific evocation of a place defined by its people, and is a reminder that it’s never too late to teach an old dog new tricks, even if it is an easy ollie.
“I always have to remember to hit pause when I start feeling something.”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5