‘Mid90s’ is an aesthetic achievement of nostalgia that rings hollow

I originally posted this over on Letterboxd. Give me a follow if you like.

Jonah Hill’s directorial debut is a love letter to a very specific subculture in California in the mid-90s, but its themes of longing for acceptance and yearning for understanding are universal, especially for teenaged boys. That’s where it both engaged me and lost me a bit.

Our entry point into this world of hip-hop and skating is 13-year-old Stevie (Sonny Suljic). His brother (Lucas Hedges) beats him, his dad isn’t in the picture and his mom (Katherine Waterston) is a bit too detailed about her love life. Spurred on by his adolescent angst, Stevie searches for something that he can call his own, and falls in with a group of skaters.

He earns his way into the group slowly — first by learning to not thank another kid, because “Saying ‘Thank you’ is gay,” according to his new buddy Ruben; later by accosting a security guard (Jerrrod Carmichael) with the group while drinking and smoking weed; and finally by mastering the ollie, then splitting his head wide open while trying to perform a difficult trick. And, since it’s the 90s, liberal usage of the words “f–,” “f—–s,” “n—–” and “gay” as a derivative abounds. Throw in a bunch of teenage drinking and smoking and an uncomfortable sexual experience where 13-year-old Stevie gets with an older girl, and you have an accurate time capsule to the titular time period and also a narrowly specific, yet broadly universal coming-of-age story.

Much has been made about whether or not Hill is endorsing all of the stupid behavior and toxic masculinity going on here. I don’t think he is; I think he’s merely showing the time for what it was, especially for a teenaged boy. But that doesn’t make it any more comfortable to watch Stevie down a 40, or smoke blunts while his drunken friend Fuckshit drives.

Throughout watching this, I felt a more relatable pang than I did while watching the two films “Mid90s” is most compared to. While “Eighth Grade” took me back to middle school in the best/worst way, and “Lady Bird” made me reexamine just how #deep I truly was in high school, “Mid90s” made me drag up some of the worst memories I had of 6th-7th grade, of trying desperately to fit in and desperately wanting people to think I was cool. I didn’t get up to half of the shenanigans that Stevie did, but to my prim and proper upbringing, hanging out with the people I hung out with was rebellion.

The fact that this stirred up so many raw memories is both good filmmaking and a sad reality for men and young boys in America. Void of our own father figures, we seek validation by trying to hurt others the way we have been hurt. An endless cycle.

But where those other two films empathize with their main characters immediately, “Mid90s” is clinical, merely observing this environment. Hill’s script desperately tries to ape a slice-of-life feel, yet comes across as too calculated. Shot in a 4:3 ratio in near-VHS quality with a killer soundtrack and great sound design, this works more as a stylistic exercise than a substantial one. Hill is a talented filmmaker and I’ll definitely watch his next effort, but “Mid90s” didn’t do it for me.

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