“Mid90s” review by Alex and Nate Blake

Directed by: Jonah Hill

Rated: R

Length: 85 minutes

Alex:

Let’s be real, the 90s were a pretty awesome time. And it is a time that everyone who lived through that decade is nostalgic for. How could you not be? Boy bands, being forced to play outside when your mom got tired of you, and the biggest presidential scandal was whether or not he “had sexual relations with that woman.” Jonah Hill’s directorial debut captures this nostalgia without hitting you over the head with it. This film follows Stevie (Sunny Suljic) as he navigates a bit of an identity crisis and tries to find somewhere where he fits in. In this struggle, he meets a group of four skateboarders that he idolizes and befriends. The film follows these friendships while Stevie continues to deal with his tumultuous family life.

This film has great entertainment value. The story is intriguing and the script is well written. The dialogue is realistic, as are the friendships Stevie develops throughout the film. With that all being said I did have quite a few issues with this movie.

Let’s start with the characters. Lucas Hedges plays Ian, Stevie’s violent older brother. We have seen Hedges give amazing performances in the award-winning films Manchester by the Sea and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. In these films, he gives such raw and emotional performances. In this particular film though, his performance was fine, but the character that was written for him was very one-dimensional. Honestly, it was a waste of his talent. We learn nothing about Ian other than a mysterious line where he claims his mom used to be “different,” and there was an obvious effect on him as a child. He is a violent and emotional young man but there is no explanation as to what led him there. He plays a significant enough part in the story line that the character requires more development.

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The other character problems come with some of the more peripheral characters. Stevie’s mom (Katherine Waterston) is an absolutely useless character. She serves no purpose other than to yell at Stevie at two different points in the film.

The other main character problem is in the structure of the friend group that Stevie falls into. By far, the most intriguing character in this film is Ray (Na-kel Smith). He is older than Stevie and by the end definitely becomes the closest thing Stevie has to a role model. Ray self discloses some things about his past at one point that makes him just that much more interesting. At one point in the film, he is explaining to Stevie that everyone in their friend group has issues. By Ray disclosing these things about the other characters, it makes the others fall to the wayside and seem less important. It is clear that Ray is who Stevie wants to grow to be.

Ok, let’s move on to the plot next. In general, the plot of this film was fine, but only if you don’t think too much about it. I left the theater really liking this film. However, the longer I thought about it and the more Nathan and I talked about it, the more bothered I became by its problems. First, let’s start in a more general sense. A lot of this film focused on Stevie’s relationship with his brother Ian. Because Ian’s character is so underdeveloped this relationship really detracts from the more interesting aspects of the story. I wish the plot of this film had focused less on his family problems and would have dug deeper into the lives of his friends. They were given pretty interesting and diverse back stories and I wish those could have been explored more.

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The end of this film was also something that I had issue with. There is a dramatic event that lands one of the characters in the hospital. There’s a moment that comes out of nowhere and causes Stevie’s mom to have a complete change of opinion on hiss friends. Any mother would take issue with some of the activities her son is engaging in. And, rightfully so, she blames her son’s new friends for his behaviors. By the end of the film though, she has a complete change of heart for no particular reason. Considering the anger she exhibits at certain points in the film, it seemed very out of character and this choice was just a convenient way to wrap the plot in a bow in order to end the film. (There is a spoiler section at the end of this blog. Keep scrolling if you want to read about some of the more problematic parts of the plot that I can’t discuss without getting specific.)

I wouldn’t say that this was a totally negative viewing experience. It was an enjoyable film to see and definitely a great directorial debut for Jonah Hill. The script was well written and the cinematography was awesome. While I wasn’t a huge fan of this film, it makes me excited to see what Hill will do next.

Nate:

I usually try to keep my reviews at a PG level regardless of a given film’s rating. Chalk it up to small-town newspaper editorial standards dying hard I guess, but in this case we have a film that makes it impossible, due to one character being known as Fuckshit. That said, if you read on, you should have an idea now what you’re in for.

Mid90s largely demonstrates two things about Jonah Hill. The first is that he is a truly gifted director. His skill is apparent throughout the entirety of the film’s brisk 85 minute running time. There were times when I was fully immersed in the world of young skaters in Los Angeles in, you guessed it, the mid 1990s. Hill brings this world to life with the vivid skill and familiarity that Alexander Payne brought to that of the world of wine drinkers in Sideways or the railroad hobbyists in The Station Agent. This film is magnificent, risky and sometimes quite funny when focusing on the skating antics of Stevie and his friends from the Motor Avenue Skateshop.

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The second thing Mid90s demonstrates about Jonah Hill is that his screenwriting skills need polishing, and quite a bit of it. In terms of dialogue, he nails it. His characters all sound unique and authentic. For better or worse, and quite often worse, the profane, graphic and at times offensive conversations Hill writes for these characters feel real. Hell, I reached age 13 a few years later than Stevie, and lived nowhere near California, but at times the dialogue feels lifted from discussions teens in my neighborhood used to have in the early 2000s. Dialogue aside though, the script is kind of a mess. Certain characters are very one-note. It’s a shame that someone as brilliant as Lucas Hedges is given so little to work with as Stevie’s older brother Ian. The script is also dismissive of some very harmful behaviors on the part of all these characters. That’s probably an intentional decision by Hill. He seems interested in showing us a real snippet of life in a time and place without passing judgement, but certain elements too explosive to breeze past the way he does. I will discuss a few of these in greater detail in our spoiler section of the review, but suffice to say this is actually a film that suffers because of it’s concise nature. Hill has a lot of material to work with here and this would be a better film if he took some additional time to explore the more serious issues he brings up. As is, the script is hasty and shallow.

One thing I found striking about Mid90s, in a good way, is how little of it is about the 90s. There is some 90s music, 90s clothing and 90s tech, but it’s not emphasized. The film’s title is fitting, but as to tell the viewer “don’t be nostalgic and don’t fool yourself, life was hard for teens in the 90s too.” They might have coped differently. They didn’t spend hours every day on social media or glued to their phone. The most 90s thing about this film is how much time the characters spend outside. Their lives were still hard though, as has always been the case for teens. It’s a more profound message than one might expect from the star of Superbad and 21 Jump Street. It’s an important message though, especially during this embarrassing and ignorant MAGA moment the country finds itself in. Many are tempted to look back on the Clinton years the way some in the 1970s used to look back at the 1950s, through fluff such as Happy Days, and idealize the decade. Hill wisely resists and warns against such high levels of nostalgia, and that’s where the film succeeds.

I also appreciated the home-video look of the film. It is shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio, the same one utilized by most VHS-C or 8mm camcorders that were sold in the mid 1990s. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt does more with this format than maybe anyone ever has. I’ve worked with many consumer camcorders, and while I’m sure the cameras used for this project were likely of much higher quality than the Sony handycam your Dad still has in his attic, the effect looks similar. Blauvelt manages to make this style epic. Some of the skating sequences are epic. That’s not hyperbole. Some of these sequences are damn beautiful.

As I write all of this about Mid90s, I still can’t say if my impression of the film overall is positive or negative. It’s a seriously flawed film in many respects, but it is always interesting and I was entertained. My admiration was often accompanied by discomfort, however, and not in an intended way, but in a manner that questioned some of Hill’s choices. Let’s talk spoilers.

LAST CHANCE TO TURN BACK! SPOILERS AHEAD! YOU WERE WARNED!

TRIGGER WARNING: This section contains explicit discussion of plot elements relating to child abuse, sexual assault and self harm.

Alex: 

One troubling aspect of this film for me was that Stevie engages in a lot of self-harm and no one seems to notice or even care. There is a point where he tries to strangle himself with a cord. This act would have left a mark, yet no one notices or addresses it. I understand that in the 90s mental health care was not as prevalent as it is today. As a parent or even a friend though, I would like to think someone would have stepped in to help him in some way.

Nate:

I actually think that is intentional. That n one steps in to help him with these problems is part of his struggle. What I do find odd is that the film very quickly does away with scars he receives from skating accidents and a suicide attempt. I agree it seems like someone would at least bring up those scars in a later conversation. That the scars disappear and these incidents are never mentioned again is odd.

Alex:

Probably the most troubling part of this film for me was at the party.

Nate: 

Yeah, let’s discuss that.

A key sequence in the film is a party that Stevie and his friends attend in which they all get trashed. Stevie is 13 years old, has his first sexual experience with a much older girl. Her age is never established, but she looks old enough that girl may not be the appropriate term. She looks like she could be a mature 16 or 17 year old, perhaps, but it seems more likely she is not a minor.

Alex:

This girl that he is with doesn’t even look like a teenager

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Nate:

I think she looks like a teenager, but way too old for him. It’s creepy.

The encounter begins when she chats up Stevie, who if not by age but by demeanor, is certainly the most mature person in the room, and acts as if he has decades on Fuckshit. Stevie claims he has had sex before, an obvious lie, but the older girl ends up taking him into a bedroom. We see them in early stages of undress and watch for several uncomfortable moments as they kiss. Stevie says he s nervous, but seems willing to proceed, and then we cut to him emerging from the house to brag to his friends about “sticking two fingers in her vagina.”

Alex:

Stevie also discloses to his friends that he fingered her and that she “touched his penis a lot.” After this, you see her with her friends and them asking if he was nervous and what it was like. I understand that society tells young boys that this is ok and this is a goal they should have for themselves. However, this young woman was old enough to know better. But, then the tipping point, was when everyone there was ok with what happened. This storyline further contributes to the double standard that exists. If the gender roles were reversed, the world would be in an uproar about this scene. But, because it is a young boy getting with a older woman, that is somehow more acceptable.

Nate:

Hill only barely hints at how confusing and troubling this behavior is by Stevie, but only after this scene of him drinking and potentially being sexual assaulted by an older girl is followed by him once again taking a beating from Ian. It’s after all of this that we see Stevie attempting to strangle himself with the cord of a Nintendo controller. Then we jump to a scene were Dabney chews out Fuckshit, Ray, Ruben and Fourth Grade inside the skateshop. She also bans Stevie from hanging out with his friends. From the time of Stevie’s sexual encounter to the confrontation between Dabney and the skateshop teens, maybe ten minutes have passed. All of these developments rush by so fast that we don’t get a real understanding of Stevie’s mindset during all of it. We never get an understanding of how the troublesome sexual encounter affected him because the script quickly moves on to other things.

Another aspect of the plot I took issue with is how Dabney reacts after Stevie and his friends are involved in a drunk driving accident. Stevie suffers the worst injuries in the crash, and based on how angry Dabney was when she confronted Ray and Fuckshit at the skateshop, it’s hard to believe her wrath would be quashed entirely by the sight of the skaters sleeping peacefully in a hospital waiting room. I call BS. This woman would be pissed. Hill’s script sets her up that way. She softens way too quickly in this moment, and it caps off the film with some unearned sappiness.

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