Around 1997 when California actor Jonah Hill was about 13 or 14-years-old, he considered himself overweight and unattractive. People told him so. They said he was fat and gross. The words hurt. They got into his head. He felt ugly to the world.
He listened to hip-hop and had an overwhelming desire to be accepted by a community of skaters he would regularly see hanging out in the LA streets. Now a successful performer known principally for comedic roles, writing and directing his film with the intentionally stylized title mid90s he admits has been cathartic.
13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is brutally beaten in the hallway of his home by his abusive older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges). Feeling dejected and in need of some friends, any friends, the tousled headed boy bikes around town where he eventually notices a small group of skateboarders hanging out in the streets near the Motor Avenue Skateshop. They’re older boys, but to Stevie, they look cool, and they really know how to skate. So he lingers.
Eventually, the youngest of the gang, Ruben (Gio Galicia) starts talking to Stevie and introduces the boy to the other skateboarders. He’s soon accepted into the group, and together they hang out, talking, smoking, partying, and of course, skateboarding. For Stevie, it’s cool to be with the cool kids, and they seem to like him, even if his own skateboard with the Mutant Ninja Turtle design looks a little too 80s. He’s finally found some friends, even if they’re not exactly the kind of friends Stevie’s struggling single-parent mother, Dabney (Katherine Waterston) would like him to have. “They look like gangsters,” she angrily tells her son. It’s only Ruben who later takes a dislike to Stevie, believing that the kid is somehow replacing him in the line of popularity.
The four, plus Stevie who the boys nickname Sunburn, are a misfit bunch of teenagers who never seem to go home. There’s the acne-faced guy who’s hand is permanently grafted to a video camera, Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), so called because that’s what the others consider to be his level of education; the clueless and obscenely nicknamed Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) because that’s how he opens most of his sentences; the brooding younger kid who doesn’t know what it is to smile, Ruben; and Ray (Na-Kel Smith) the African-American who because of an obvious ability to express himself, by default appears to be the unofficial leader of the inarticulate, slumming pack. When Stevie feels humiliated and dejected because his mother has embarrassed him in front of his new friends, it’s Ray who sits and talks, assuring Stevie that no matter how bad the boy thinks his life might be, it can’t be worse than it is for the rest of the gang. “Why d’you think they never want to go home?” he asks.
The film is not so much a character study, neither does it have a conventional, fully-rounded plot. With a running of time of only 84 minutes, including credits, mid90s isn’t even a slice of life. It’s a snapshot. And it’s not biographical, either. But given what we now know of Jonah Hill’s emotional background, it’s close.
Filmed in a grainy Super 16 format with a screen ratio of 1:33 – the almost squared size of an earlier TV screen before they became wide HD monitors – mid90s has that intentionally rough-around-the-edges look of a documentary. The camera follows young Stevie around the streets of Los Angeles as if we’re the uninvited, invisible guest, peeking in on whatever happens to be going on, eavesdropping on whatever conversation he hears. And as the title suggests, it’s the mid-1990s, pre-social media.
How this may have been cathartic for Hill in his directorial debut is hard to say. The film doesn’t explore characters, it presents them. Offering little insight, it’s as if the writer/director intends for us to draw out of it what think we see and make our own conclusions without any prompting from him. This may make for some interesting, post-movie discussions, but it can also feel frustratingly incomplete.
And yet, even without fully comprehending what’s really at the root of the film, Hill’s technique is impressive. Though clearly actors, the skaters appear real enough to look and sound as though they’d just wandered in front of the camera and decided to hang out, allowing themselves to be filmed while they talk, randomly jumping from subject to subject. When the boys ramble about what they hope might be their future and ask the mostly quiet Fourth Grade what he thinks, the boy replies with a shrug, “I dunno. Make movies or something,” then adds more realistically, “Work at the DMV, like my dad.” mid90s is clearly not mainstream, but it’s a striking first chapter in Jonah Hill’s career as a director, one full of promise of better things to come.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 84 Minutes