Growing up in the 90s my generation is one obsessed with nostalgia. Whether it’s television shows, video games or movies the 90s were an awesome time for kids like me and apparently kids like Jonah Hill who was born in the 80s but did, in fact, do a lot of his own growing up in the mid-90s which is probably why this popular comedic actor chose that era as the focus of his directorial debut appropriately titled “Mid90s”. The previews made this a must see for me if for no other reason than the nostalgia and the promise of a great story from a proven talent. So does this film live up to my lofty expectations? Let’s take a look in my review of “Mid90s”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Mid90s” takes place, you guessed it, in the mid-90s in Los Angeles and focuses on 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) who lives with his aggressive older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) and his mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston). Stevie is a young preteen without and identity and soon finds his way into a skate shop where he meets Ruben, Ray, Fuckshit and Fourth Grade. Stevie bonds with the group despite his lack of skating ability and finds he fits right in with them at parties and at skating get-togethers. During these misadventures he is introduced to alcohol, drugs, and other sins of youth. Stevie’s brother and mother begin to be concerned for him while Stevie attempts to establish his place and identity in an era before social media and the connected world.
“Mid90s” for me was a fun walk down memory lane and, let’s be honest, that’s exactly what it was built to be. But despite leaning heavily on the nostalgia of the 90s this coming of age story doesn’t forsake actual storytelling. There are really cool throwbacks including skateboards, the original Playstation, CD players, Super Nintendo, Ninja Turtles and my generation’s odd obsession with posters on our walls but they don’t overpower the story. Instead Jonah Hill uses these fun Easter eggs to immerse viewers in this world of the not too distant past taking us back to the boring decade between the aggressive 80s and the technologically advanced 2000s. The young men in this movie have to make their own fun in a world where an identity isn’t just a click away. While “Mid90s” takes place on the complete opposite side of the country from where I grew up in New England and in a different backdrop compared to my backroad-style upbringing I can honestly say this was our world. This was what it was like growing up, searching for a place in a time when society was in the midst of an evolution instead of revolution. As someone who grew up in that day and age it took me back to how simple my childhood was and, in my opinion, provides a perfectly recreated snapshot of a bygone era of American culture.
In terms of performances “Mid90s”sports some promising young stars but the true standout is Sunny Suljic who portrays the film’s lead character, 13-year-old Stevie. Suljic is absolutely fantastic in this role showcasing a young 90’s product in a world where he feels bored and left out. He meets a group of older kids who each have their own demons and problems and this helps him grow up, maybe too fast. The whole movie revolves around Stevie’s transformation and evolution from his introduction to alcohol and cigarettes as well as his first experience with girls. Suljic, a young 13-year-old in real life and a stranger to the world of the 90s, manages to portray a preteen experiencing life altering moments that he himself probably has yet to experience and integrates himself into a world in which he did not grow up showing incredible understanding of what being a youth in that era was like. Suljic quite literally portrays a young man beyond his years and it shows that this young performer is something truly special. That’s not to say he’s the only great actor in this film either. The three actors that portray Stevie’s friends, Gio Galacia, Na-kel Smith, Ryder McLaughlin and Olan Prenatt, are all fine actors who take their roles seriously and Katherine Waterston embodies the out-of-touch single mother of the 90s well, but Suljic is the true star. He’s also complimented by consistent art film performer Lucas Hedges as older brother Ian who continues to prove his own value to the industry with his own incredibly nuanced and layered performance. Overall the cast is pretty awesome in “Mid90s” and had me wanting to know more about each character.
Looking at the writing and direction Jonah Hill proves any doubters of his talent wrong with this flick, his freshman directorial effort. “Mid90s” is a focused experience about one young 90s kids journey to come into his own and while I would have preferred a little more what I got was absolutely awesome. Hill seems to truly understand not only the era he decided to focus on but what it was like to live in that decade, which he should seeing at he was born in 1983 and would have been 12 by Christmas of 1995. The 90s is a decade few films focus on with coming-of-age stories. Hell, we got a Generation Z story in “Eighth Grade” before we got a truly awesome piece about growing up in the 90s. For me personally this was a movie that needed to be done right even if it’s not perfect and Hill not only pulled it off he managed pretty much every aspect of it from the writing and direction to production and general oversight of the project. The atmosphere is awesome, the characters are great, the script is fun and the presentation brings you right into the film’s world complete with a true 90’s aesthetic that you’d think would be a lot harder to replicate than it looks.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
While I’d say “Mid90s” is as close to perfect as I can expect this kind of movie to be, it does have some minor blemishes that most viewers probably won’t even care about. My biggest gripe with it is a lack of depth for its supporting characters. “Mid90s” is a fine example of how great performances are not always complimented by great attention to characters. We learn the bare minimum about Stevie’s friends, mother and brother only receiving insight from exposition and occasional moments that cause characters to crack. Most of the film is focused on Stevie, which I can respect, but it would have been nice to get to know everyone else more too. Why do these skaters just randomly decide a 13-year-old is fitting for their group? Why can Stevie come home late at night without his clearly overprotective mother catching him? Why does Ian, the brother, care so much about Stevie going over the deep end? Many of these questions get very minor answers at best and it would have only added to the substance of the film if we got more insight into these conflicts. It’s actually not a bad thing for films to leave a bit to the imagination but the way Jonah Hill does it here it doesn’t feel like it was meant as an artistic choice. It feels more like his focus was developing the main character and everything else was added in as an afterthought. Thankfully to the naked eye this is all glossed over by great acting and Hill making up for the lack of detail with awesome direction and an entertaining script.
That said while I appreciate the story “Mid90s” does tell I feel like there is room for even more story. There’s plenty more than Jonah Hill could have touched on here to build on the growing experience of these characters and make the film even MORE resonant than it already is. This doesn’t actually make “Mid90s” bad in any way but at only an hour and 24 minutes it’s hard not to argue that it’s a bit short and leaves a lot of larger details out for seemingly no reason. I’m not asking for filler by any means, I would have still liked to see something of substance. But at the end of the film I just felt like there could have been more we weren’t seeing or experiencing that would have only made this movie better. There are even some conflicts and moral crossroads that are left unresolved and while it is a fact of life that one does not always get closure with a story like this where we see characters develop into different people from who they were at the start that’s all part of the growth we deserve to see. “Mid90s” doesn’t feel incomplete, but as a viewer and someone who truly enjoyed the flashback to my own youth I wanted more and I felt there was plenty of room to add to this story and make this an even greater work of art than it already is.
As a 90s kid I really enjoyed what “Mid90s” had to offer. Director and Writer Jonah Hill hit it out of the park capturing not only the nostalgia factor but the atmosphere and even the personality of the mid-90s in his characters and backdrops. Could this have been an even better film? Yes, but there’s no denying that “Mid90s” is still a great work as it stands. Great performances and a fun script lift this movie above its flaws to give us a rare product that tries and succeeds in capturing the 90s in their glory before the internet and Facebook became the defining mediums for interaction. It’s a short experience but one that leaves a mark and has you feeling for its main characters the whole way, even those whose stories don’t exactly feel fully realized. Jonah Hill proves he is more than just a comic genius and chameleon of an actor here leading the charge bringing us an awesomely engaging coming-of-age film that is sure to have any of my fellow 90s kids entertained even if just by the nostalgia alone.