There are many reasons why smaller, independent movies are not marketed well, the two main ones being budget, and the obscurity of the film. This has not been a problem for Mid90s, all thanks to its writer and director Jonah Hill. The stardom of Hill has meant that he has been able to chat to the likes of Jimmy Fallon on late night American TV (and subsequent widespread YouTube audience) about his directorial debut, to really push the narrative of an actor learning from the masterful directors he has worked with. However this does not mean that his film isn’t a weird indie, it is, and it is actually quite mental.
The film stars Sunny Suljic as Stevie, a young teenager struggling to find his image under constant physical abuse from his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). He starts to hang out with a group of skaters, who are a small group of friends all with their own individual personalities, and issues. With these guys, Stevie gets a fast track through puberty, and he learns some truths about life.
Jonah Hill is throwing everything in here, every kind of shot, cut, character motivation and music choice. There is no single road that the film goes down, and it makes the film quite messy rather than artistic. For a majority of the runtime, it feels like a music video, and the soundtrack for the film must have forty tracks on it because the tune changes every scene. It’s not a good music video either, I was expecting a rhythm between the action and the song choice, more connectivity with the beats and the skateboarding. After watching Minding the Gap a couple of weeks ago, where the skateboarding moments are stunning, Mid90s doesn’t come close to the melody that documentary has. It’s not all bad, some of the frantic cutting with the cycle of mixed songs works, particularly in a party scene where the edit is synchronised with the music. Most of it is jarring, and the biggest surprise of Mid90s is that it’s a scratchy independent movie, with rough edges and obvious signs that it is a first time director. This is in complete contrast with Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut A Star is Born, which is a polished affair from a popular actor turned director, and honestly it’s difficult to decide which is the least obnoxious. And that’s the thing, Mid90s is an unpleasant movie, without real drama or ideas to warrant its unpleasantness.
There are a few problematic moments in the film. We discover very early on that Stevie self-harms, in any way that he can, and this is where the film falls down. There is no problem in having this is in cinema, but Hill is resting on it to guide the film and Stevie’s character, and it was too much after he had already established the abuse he receives from his brother. A lot of the film is too much, where Hill is almost writing to one-up himself with each scene, putting his characters through pointless recurring pain. Another problematic moment is during an intimate scene between an older girl and Stevie, and it’s not because of the content but because of the choices Hill made. He chose to cast a child who looks young for his age, and he chose to cast an attractive actress, and he chose to shoot a close-up of them kissing. The ‘what if the roles were reversed’ argument is stupid, and there is a defence for Hill on that, because of the obvious sexual maturity differences in an older guy grooming a younger girl compared to an older girl grooming a younger guy. It’s the idea of this stereotypically beautiful woman wanting to have sexual contact with a younger boy because he’s innocent that makes it uncomfortable, and it would have been acceptable if Hill hadn’t moulded the scene to be so overtly sexual. The scene comes across as sleazy, and perverse, instead of the intended intention of showing a natural part of growing up.
There is an interesting film in there somewhere – one of the skater’s Ray (Na-kel Smith) is a lovely character with something to say, but as soon as he says something Hill seems to forget about it and go back to his child getting drunk or being abused. Much of the promotion in this film has included the bond between Hill and Suljic, but Hill sure does put him through some trauma. Katherine Waterson as Stevie and Ian’s mother is the best part of the movie, and she is an extraordinary actor when used correctly. Her character’s mystery of whether her kids’ problems are her fault is actually presented in a nuanced fashion, dissimilar to everything else in the film. My instant reaction Mid90s was probably harsh because I’d much rather be in a world where filmmakers are making trickier things like this over safer efforts, there is just a lack of execution. Hill has taken on the teachings of the great directors he’s worked for (Scorsese, Coen Brothers, Bennett Miller, etc), but perhaps he could have left out a few lessons. The film is not funny, exciting, emotional or profound like it thinks it is, and although some of the coming of age stuff is fine, it’s not good enough to carry the other themes. Mid90s is irritating, brash and unpoetic, which earns Hill respect for trying, but leads to a movie that is hard to enjoy.
Is it worth the price of a cinema ticket?
No. It’s rubbish. I’m not even sure you can sell this to the skateboarder either, Hill sort of loses it as a motif about half-way through. Watch Minding the Gap instead, which is a far greater investigation into masculinity, race, abuse, and friendship with skateboarding at the centre.