Its strange to think of someone paying a sawbuck and a half to see Jonah Hills new directorial debut, Mid90s, in a movie theater. Not because the movie is bad—though, to be up-front with you, I dont love it. But the project is just so slight, in ways both purposeful and not. Its practically over before it really gets started.
Mid90s is a quick trip through a high point in the Los Angeles adolescence of a pre-teen named Stevie—a mop-headed white kid played by the delightfully boyish Sunny Suljic—who falls in with a mixed crowd of older skater bros. He doesnt exactly need a role model; dad is out of the picture, but he has an older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges). Then again, Ian wears a chain, drinks orange juice straight out of the carton, and wears the flavor of oversized polo shirt native to hip-hop culture—he mustve seen it in a music video. Hes a poser. No wonder Stevie has to outsource his idols.
The skate crew seems much more legit, with their skate-shop hangs and skate videos and wild hair and flippant overuse of pejoratives: the n-word, “retarded,” “bitch,” the f-word—no, the other f-word. Thats the attraction. In ascending order of coolness, theres Ruben (Gio Galicia), the youngest, a Mexican kid who stays at the skate shop later than everyone else because his mom is an abusive alcoholic; Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), a white kid who, though hes the poorest of the bunch, has a video camera, and a knack for capturing his friends at their zaniest; Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), the rich stoner, so-named because his reaction to anything cool is a giggly “Fuck! Shit . . .”; and Ray (Na-kel Smith), the chill black guy, whos the moral center of the group and, for his coolness, telegraphs as much at every turn.
Youve seen all this before. Thats fine. What I like is how casually these counterlives and backstories worm their way into the movie, and how quickly it all escalates. It isnt long before Stevie starts drinking and taking speed and hooking up with older girls to fit in, in between being their water boy and practicing his basic skate moves at home. This is a kid with a “Cowabunga!” dinosaur skateboard, who giggles with schoolboy glee at being accepted (its adorable—and therefore the least cool thing imaginable). His skateboarding sucks; he knows he has to do something to stand out. Meanwhile, his mom, Dabney (Katherine Waterston), misses her polite boy, the one who doesnt come home drunk and piss in her pot plants.
Which is sort of what Mid90s is about. Yes, its a 90s nostalgia ploy, with its winking graininess and tight aspect ratio and nods to Street Fighter II, “Kiss from a Rose,” and D.A.R.E., among other references. And yes, its yet another coming-of-age tale from A24, the distributor-turned-studio that previously had a hand in Lady Bird, Moonlight, and just this year, Eighth Grade.
And yes, theres an instinct, after watching another mediocre-to-pretty-good take on the 90s directed by a child of that era, to blame the Miramax movies they must have gobbled up as kids: your convoluted, Tarantino bad-boy thrillers, your Paul Thomas Anderson–esque feats of junior auteurism. So it is with Mid90s, a movie made by a Richard Linklater fan, one would guess, who saw Tarantino just barely get away unscathed for abusing the n-word, and learned the wrong lesson. This is the stuff that drags Mid90s down.
But its also what lifts it up. I think theres a “So this is how it happens . . .” mystique to Mid90s, as in: So this is where the “cool white guys” in my life come from. They spent their adolescence taking their cultural cues from hip-hop and skate culture, before evening out somewhere in the middle. Stevie would be in his 30s now; he probably has a blue checkmark on Twitter. (So does Lady Bird.)
What works best about Mid90s is whats casual about it—but what makes it verge on being genuinely original is all the weirdo stuff at the margins, which is too pronounced to be subtext and too minimally handled to really mean something to the movie. Im talking about Stevies odd rituals of self-abuse—and a frightening instance of male rage that the movie strangely allows to evaporate, with little sense of the implications.
Mid90s is eager not to do anything much with these moments—but its also eager to include them. Maybe Hill doesnt want to moralize, or for his movie to become an editorial on white-guy rage—understandably, perhaps. Or maybe these standout morsels are just rote idiosyncrasy, the kinds of colorful quirk—albeit dark—that gets an indie movie sold these days. Its unclear. In a richer movie, it wouldnt be.
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