If the sight of Ryan Gosling’s moon mission and the sound of Lady Gaga’s commanding vocals are any indications, we are officially in the bold beginnings of awards season. Curiously, this year’s new wave involves well-established talent making the jump behind the camera and into the director’s chair. From Paul Dano and Bo Burnham to Amy Poehler and Olivia Wilde, these classic career transitions are offering interesting voices a place in the film industry. Enter Jonah Hill, known for comedies such as Superbad and 21 Jump Street, who has recently been making the slow transition into more serious character roles in The Wolf of Wallstreet and Fukunaga’s Netflix joint, Maniac. His card to throw into this directorial debut poker table is Mid90s, produced by big-name-indie-house A24.
Set in Los Angeles, Mid90s is a slice-of-life film centered on a young boy named Stevie (Sunny Suljic) who encounters and becomes part of a local skateboarding clique. This group becomes Stevie’s escape as he gets into violent fights with his older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges) and starts to feel detached with his mother (Katherine Waterston) in his home life. Hill sought to authentically portray L.A. skate culture by hiring real skateboard talent as actors for his ensemble cast. Fixed to a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, Hill commands every technical aspect within and around the frame to evoke nostalgic aesthetics and feel as grungy as the 90s itself.
The first act of this film shows promise that never pays off or acknowledged in more than a surface-level way. We are introduced to Stevie’s daily life, his abusive and violent interactions with Ian; quickly this is contrasted with the crude but kinder skate group who welcome him into their gang of misfits. I enjoyed how this was all established and saw it as a prime starting point to deeply dig into the dynamics of Stevie’s home environment versus his friend outings. Knowing how much Hill talked about masculinity during press for this film, I interpreted this as a beautiful opportunity to portray the cycle of toxicity in masculine relationships – the manifestation of aggression and irony, the normalization of these emotions to the men in Stevie’s life, and how he pays it forward to his friends.
It becomes very apparent by the halfway mark of the film that these topics aren’t exactly what Mid90s is about. Toxic masculinity is treated merely as a personality trait between these characters instead of a theme or as development to show growth in this loose narrative. I was left to wonder how the film wanted me to feel about the antics the skate group was getting into. Self-destructive habits are a large chain of action with barely any thematic connection within the film, from hard drug use, to constant alcohol consumption, violent combat, and self-harm via video game controller wires. It took up until a party scene, where 13-year-old Stevie has a sexual encounter with a high school girl—framed as nothing more than a conversational piece between the skater boys—for me to realize that Mid90s simply doesn’t have a lot to say about the dangers within this community.
The slice-of-life genre is a rebirthing modern trend in cinema, and while they are defined by their plotless nature, they always have something thematically resonant to connect the movie together. This is where Mid90s fails, as its thematic connection is far too weak. If “friendship will get you through tough times” is the lesson to be taken out of this skater flick, then the film fails at convincing me that these kids have a positive connection to one another past the fact that they all skate. If this film is meant to criticize masculinity, its vagueness feels like it’s condoning these characters actions. The ending, which creates so much artificial conflict, looks upon the events of the film as sweet memories that were made, but I could only feel upset with how Stevie was treated throughout all of it.
Mid90s, not unlike masculinity itself, is flashy and overcompensates for its lack of depth. I have huge issues with Mid90s constantly dropping thematic potential as an excuse to maintain its aesthetics. Hill clearly has a love for the time period and is dedicated to making sure period detail lives within every stylistic choice of his film. The brands, the bands, the posters, the drugs, the alcohol, the sex and even the aspect ratio all add up to create a nostalgic portrait of the culture, but Hill’s obsession proves to be the film’s downfall. Not enough effort is made to justify all of this cultural texture. For example, whilst the needle drops may be gratifying to those who are a fan of the decade’s hip-hop classics, they contribute nothing but to prove Hill is cultured to his audience. Nostalgia can be a beautiful component in enhancing thematic material through juxtaposition to a feeling a time period evokes, but here it just feels like thoughtless excess.
Another overbearing problem is that for a film about 90s skate culture, there’s a real lack of skating. Only one sequence, in particular, stood out to me, and even then I couldn’t help but feel that Hill was so attached to his meticulous portrait of nostalgia that the camerawork felt limited. Skateboarding is a magical, flowing sense of freedom and the cramped, squarish frame of Mid90s feels restrictive– lacking in any of the dynamism that makes skating feel so beautiful to watch on film. The camera is often static, wide, and lacking in any enthusiasm when it is capturing the skateboarding. The momentum of skaters on wooden boards opens up so many opportunities for visual storytelling and it feels like a big waste that the very thing this film wants us to recall on is the thing it under-utilizes so deeply.
At the very least. I liked the performances between these non-actors. Hill is able to get naturalistic emotions out of these skaters despite the little development they are given. Suljic and Smith are the highlights, sharing the best scene in the film in which they have a heart-to-heart and skate the pain away. This was a rare moment of emotional rawness I would have liked to see more of. Waterston and Hedges definitely fall short, with their characters feeling cartoonish in even in extreme emotional beats.
For a starting point in Hill’s career, Mid90s is a valiant enough effort to show that he has control over the look and feel of the screen. If Hill wants to truly prove himself as a worthy voice, he has to find something to say and commit to it. In my eyes, this is a fall, and I’m still looking forward to seeing him get back up.