Children of the mid-90s lived on the edge of a vanishing frontier, when the Internet was still a novelty and before social media gave us the blessing and curse of instant connection. The opening scenes of Mid90s, Jonah Hill’s assured directorial debut, draw a warm bath of nostalgia and invite us to soak in a Calgon haze of mixtapes, Wu Tang posters, and weekly trips to Blockbuster Video. Hill effectively uses these scenes to setup time and place (and make those of us who grew up then feel older than dirt itself), before wisely shifting to a story that focuses on the ubiquitous struggles of youth that will always remain relevant. Alternately funny, moving, and insightful, Mid90s has plenty of strengths to paper over a few storytelling flaws.
Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is a Los Angeles kid, plunk in the middle of his junior high years. He doesn’t know the kind of person he wants to be, so Stevie tries to be everything to everybody: He seeks the love of his lunkhead older brother, who regards him as an unshakable pest, and his single mother, who parents her unruly sons with varying degrees of cheerful exasperation. Stevie, in desperate need of social nourishment, falls in with a shambling clique of skater boys–who sport Garbage Pail Kid/chain gang nicknames: Fuckshit, the hedonistic party animal; Fourth Grade, who’s judged to be dim because he never speaks; Ray, the leader of the group who displays glimmers of heightened maturity; Rueben, the gang’s surly, profoundly insecure junior member. Stevie, motivated by a profound desire to be accepted, smokes blunts and pounds malt liquor, and finds that his path of self-discovery may lead to annihilation.
As a writer and director, Hill aims for raw realism and coaxes natural, relaxed performances from his young cast: Suljic is excellent as a good-natured kid who builds his new personality on a shaky foundation. Na-Kel Smith is another strong presence as Ray, the older, wiser kid who has the self-awareness to see life beyond a few hours ahead. These two actors share some great, honest bonding scenes that give the film some dramatic depth and elevate it above the typical coming-of-age fare. Young actors are notoriously difficult to direct–the uniformly good performances of this cast are a testament to their skill, but also to Hill as an emerging director.
If Hill does a great putting this story on the ramp, he doesn’t quite know how to stick the landing. Story arcs are built–like Fuckshit’s boozy spiral–but left unfinished. This makes the film’s ending feel a little truncated–Hill goes too narratively minimal for his own good. Still, Mid90s delivers a good movie from a sharp, intelligent filmmaker. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come from Jonah Hill.