mid90s (Movie Review)

mid90s** out of ****
Rated R
(for pervasive strong language, drug and alcohol use, some violent behavior and disturbing images, and sexuality – all involving minors)
Released: October 26, 2018
Runtime: 84 minutes
Directed by: Jonah Hill
Starring: Sunny Suljic, Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Gio Galicia, Ryder McLaughlin, Lucas Hedges, Katherine Waterston

Nostalgia rings truer when mixed with regret, but actor Jonah Hill’s directorial bow is simply a straight shot of broing out.

For all the great filmmakers that Hill has worked with — Scorsese, Tarantino, and the Coens among them — the one he most closely emulates in his first feature is…Kevin Smith?

In what effectively works as a “Skaters” riff on Smith’s “Clerks” (but with fewer colorful characters), Jonah Hill has written and crafted his filmmaking debut from his own experience. The semi-autobiographical mid90s — about growing up in 1990s Los Angeles — is sparse on plot, glomming moments into a loose narrative about Stevie (newcomer Sunny Suljic), Hill’s thirteen-year-old surrogate, as he finds refuge in a local crew of skateboarders.

Yet while Smith used his collection of sketches as platforms for actual thoughts and ideas spiced by crude juvenile humor, Hill mostly doubles down on the latter.

This thinly drawn portrait is certainly personal, but with nothing new to say (and barely anything to say at all) mid90s comes off as derivative and slight. Hill may affect a stripped-down early-Linklater style, too, but he misses that Austin auteur’s melancholic hindsight.

The talented, spontaneous cast is primed to bring these memories life, and they do (Na-kel Smith and Olan Prenatt are impressive standouts as the older kids Stevie aspires to), and Hill certainly re-creates a strong sense of time and place, but he coasts on a referential affection that avoids deeper reflection.

In short, mid90s waxes nostalgic about a time when swearing profusely while using homophobic slurs and N-word epithets in mixed company was an acceptable right of passage for pubescent teen boys. Shorter still, it’s essentially 80 minutes of 90s-set “remember when…yeah, that was awesome.”

What it needs is a richer, more compelling insight into the psychology and attraction behind the power of group identities, or specifically this group identity, both the good and the bad of that, but Hill simply resorts to the universal need for friendship and acceptance.

And maybe that’s all there is to it. If so, then mid90s simply comes off as a sentimental ode to when profane vulgarity was still, well, innocent, at least by current, more demanding PC values.

Indeed, by modern standards, some of the coming-of-age landmarks here play more like fantasies than an honest accounting, complete with a young teen boy’s first sexual experience. Sure, it’s possible that an older teen girl would randomly pick a much younger, awkward tween boy to deflower in a back room, but this is driven so entirely by her own alluring agency that she turns into a Manic Pixie Dream Lay.

How it unfolds is the version that a boy would boast about to his friends later on, not in how it likely, and more clumsily, went down in real life (if at all). It’s as if the filmmaker himself is still bragging when a more frank one would be confessing.

It’s easy to digress into these nitpicks because mid90s doesn’t give us anything substantial to dig in to. It all may resonate for male peers from Hill’s generation, but for anyone outside that niche there’s likely an unavoidable distance involved, as if being shown someone else’s old random home movies. (The film’s pre-HD 4:3 square frame fits that motif; it also feels a bit pretentious.)

We observe anthropologically, not emotionally, and with increased tedium.

Hill’s script strains for something more down the stretch, of what Stevie learns and gains from it all, but it’s a reductionist, platitudinal overreach that turns mid90s into an R-rated After School Special. Stevie’s going to be alright after these crazy, wonderful times, but Jonah Hill’s directorial future appears more suspect.

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