Ten years ago, if you’d pointed at the poster for Superbad and had to guess which of the two actors sporting dazed faces would go on to direct, Jonah Hill likely wouldn’t have been the top choice. Then again, whoever would have guessed the guy would end up scoring two Oscar nominations? Hill’s had an interesting career since getting shoved into the spotlight, and as time goes on it’s become clear that he’s unabashedly sincere about his art and craft. It shouldn’t be a surprise that his directorial debut is actually pretty damn good as well. The guy is talented.
As you probably gathered from the title, Mid90s is an unapologetically nostalgic affair. The coming-of-age tale is deeply rooted in 1990s culture with countless touchstones (a Super Nintendo controller laying on a Ninja Turtles bedspread, etc.) and a hell of a mixtape soundtrack (whenever it isn’t another excellent Reznor/Ross score). It’s funny too, and sweet and vulgar, all of the things one might expect. However, Hill also strives for a slice-of-life realism relatively devoid of easy screenwriting textbook markers, which proves to be a pleasant surprise. Shot in 16mm in an old-fashioned square aspect ratio, Hill’s also throwing back to the days of mid-90s indie cinema as well, a simpler time when ambling was admirable and even Sundance pandering indies strove to capture something about life, even if they didn’t have much to say.
There isn’t a hell of a lot of plot to Mid90s. It’s more a series of events that grow into a story. Remarkable youngster Sunny Suljic stars as a troubled and lost young teen who spots a subculture he likes and worms his way in. That subculture is skateboarding, and he quickly finds a gang of equally lost kids in a skate shop willing to take him under their wings. What starts as overly earnest mimicry and shameless hanging-on soon grows into actual friendship, along with plenty of debauchery (cheap beer, cheap dates, cheap thrills, etc.). They have the kind of friendship that helps define personalities and worldviews while also pulling troubled home lives into sharp focus.
It’s a melancholy, vibrant, and genuinely sweet tale anchored by a collection of amazing performances. Lucas Hedges in particular feels destined to be noticed for his bullying big brother who proves to be more tragic than terrifying. Hill’s directorial style is lax and meandering. Long takes and long conversations rule the day while themes and meaning slowly build up through all of the filthy chat sessions and observed moments. It’s the usual coming-of-age stuff, just with kickflips and swears.
Hill was smart enough to keep it simple with his directorial debut, wisely recognizing that the movie had a big bullseye on it by virtue of his involvement. For the most part, he ambles along admirably, but the usual first feature growing pains do appear. Mid90s is so gentle as to feel soft and not nearly as good at concealing its moviemaker messaging as it thinks it is. (Hey, you know that dumb kid with the camera? Do you think maybe at some point… Nah, no way he shows the video he’s making and it turns out to be great.)
Mid90s is a little wisp of a feature that charms enough to conceal its flaws without ever reaching masterful heights, but that was probably a wise choice. No need to bite off too much with a first filmmaking try. Just prove you can get the job done and then get ambitious once you have momentum. It’ll be fun to see where Jonah Hill goes next as a filmmaker. With this attempt, he’s proven himself enough to get another kick at the can.