As someone who came of age in the ’90s, my biggest concern going into Mid90s was whether first-time director Jonah Hill could ever capture anything resembling my experience of the era. Given that the film is blatantly and understandably a portrayal of the male experience, it succeeds only in being an extension of my own coming-of-age story. That said, I remember these boys and I remember the intense desire to find a place where I belonged. In that sense, Hill has captured an experience that transcends time.
Thirteen-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is eager to escape his troubled home, where older brother Ian (a criminally underused Lucas Hedges) brutally beats him and mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston) overshares details about her rocky love life. Finding his place among the rabble-rousers who frequent the Motor Avenue skate shop, impressionable Stevie navigates the usual milestones of bad boy adolescence, building his identity on what he thinks everyone else wants from him. Quickly earning a nickname and respect, Stevie’s innocence shifts to confidence as he finds the acceptance he’s craved from this new group of friends.
Hill’s young cast of (mostly) first-time actors feel very much at home in their oversized graphic tees, skating around Los Angeles to a nostalgic soundtrack. His directorial style is naturalistic, containing echoes of Larry Clark’s Kids (writer Harmony Korine makes a cameo appearance) and Richard Linklater’s Slacker; every scene feels as if he started rolling the moment the boys showed up and started hanging out. Not quite as natural is the attempted humor of their bro-centric dialogue, which is the epitome of the “boys will be boys” mentality. Because of this, many of the un-PC terms they freely toss around will be distracting for modern audiences, despite their relevance to the time period.
As Stevie, Suljic wears his heart on his sleeve in a moving performance, and the audience is invested in his story from the moment we see his wide-eyed wonder. Na-Kel Smith stands out as Ray, the sensible one who offers his young friend some much-needed guidance and comfort. Rounding out the gang are Ruben (Gio Galicia), Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), and Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), who, by the end, you genuinely care for and wonder what will become of them. Hill's narrative is very much a snapshot in time offering no closure. but as long as they have each other maybe everything could be all right.
A score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross beautifully complements Stevie’s youthful yearning to belong, the main theme a lulling piano melody that reappears at pivotal moments to pull at the strings of your heart. Of course, the nineties atmosphere wouldn’t be complete without needle drops from the likes of The Pixies, Morrissey, and Nirvana. Every song takes you back to a time you wouldn’t want to relive, but that you’ll never be able to forget.
While Mid90s may not resemble your experience of the era or mine, there are shadows of all of us in the background. We were there wasting hours in parking lots as our friends ollied over picnic tables. We were there looking for something we believed would complete us. All of us hoping to find a place where we belonged and the family who would never fail to show up for us.