Jonah Hill has undergone one of the most radical transformation of our time. From loveable Apatow regular to notable dramatic star, there is not any surprise that he has gone and made a beautifully moving feature film. Hill has been surrounded by enough talent to know the game. What comes through in Mid90s is that all that time working under the world’s best directors – Scorsese, the Coens, and Bennett Miller – has paid dividends. This skateboarding time capsule has a true actor’s sense for filmmaking, tightly studied and developed from the other side of the lens.
Because Hill knows exactly what to do with actors, it is no surprise everything is perfectly in place. Each scene perfectly blocked, each movement tightly choreographed and framed. Jonah Hill has become an expert and is going to get the best out of everyone in front of the camera.
Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is a reputable performer. Maybe you’ll know him as the voice of the boy from the recent God of War (2018) or the younger brother in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), but you will want to know him for Mid90s. He possesses a rare gift for a young actor, a seemingly nuanced understanding of his part. Stevie’s taking up skateboarding for the first time to impress a group of new friends at the local skate shop.
The boys are a motley crew, with fun dynamics and multiple dimensions. There’s Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), the quiet and slightly slow guy who is revealed to be dirt poor. Ian (Lucas Hedges) is the runt of the group, always posturing. Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), named on account of yelling “Fuck-shit!” every time he bails, seems to be bailing on his life altogether for the somber path of addiction, unable to see a more viable path. Ray (Na-Kel Smith) is the intelligent alpha-male of the group, the shop runner trying to play big brother to all.
More Lord of the Flies (1963) than Lords of Dogtown (2005), Mid90s is about the common brotherhood of these kids. They’re all dispossessed of dreams and a sense of the future, struck with the feeling of the moment, the expression of now. And their now is a carefully crafted 90s, more true than nostalgic. There are good memories, of course, the lively chiptunes of F-Zero emanating from the background while Stevie grips an SNES controller like it’s his only slice of salvation. Soon, he asphyxiates himself with the same controller. Hip-hop is specifically shown as the ultimate force of cultural positivity, the one unbreakable bond that encapsulates the film perfectly in time. GZA’s “Liquid Swords” hangs like a thick cloud of pure 90s recall, floating purposefully over a backyard BBQ. Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose have composed meaningful new tracks designed for the movie. Occasionally Hill will slow down and scan over a row of albums and they are not only the albums you owned, but the ones you remembered, the few CDs you kept, will always keep. Nirvana’s cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” features as our lead loses his virginity, not out of personal interest but as a means to impress the group. Hill has said this was the first song he learned on guitar, in his own 90s, and we know how intensely personal this enterprise is. This is a mixtape you would give to your first crush and hopefully they dig it, because it is your identity at that stage of life.
Mid90s only collapses after its second act, where it ends unceremoniously. It spends a lot of time showing off a naïve moment, an important development among a group of friends, and doesn’t allow itself to finish. It so desperately needs a final act, a course correction on the derogatory slurs and misled notions of youth throughout, but it only captures a static moment, a single stage of life. This allows the film to serve its primary purpose, as one of the primary documents about skateboarding culture in the 90s.