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Jonah Hill’s Mid90s is more than a movie about a bunch of skateboarding urchins grinding up Los Angeles’ public parks; it’s a capsule of a time, a place, a look, and a sound that feels incredibly vivid and nostalgic for anyone who was even on the periphery of the culture that it depicts. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles linens adorn the bed of 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic); a Beavis and Butt-Head t-shirt is what he wears to seem older when meeting the kids he looks up to; and in between reflective cues by Oscar-winning composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (Gone Girl), The Pharcyde, Nirvana and A Tribe Called Quest provide a wall-to-wall soundtrack to a bygone generation’s coming of age. Hill recently explained that the ‘90s ephemera included in the film is meant to be true to the characters’ lives, but lived-in and unobtrusive - which explains why it all seems to fit so well together.
“If you think of a period piece you think of powdered wigs or Downton Abbey, but the 90s are now a true period piece,” Hill told Birth.Movies.Death. “To show the version of Los Angeles I wanted to show, which was the non-stereotypical Hollywood version, there’s a blandness and a colorlessness to it, and everything from stoplights to parking meters to trash is all very different. So every little detail matters but I didn’t want it to be some sort of nostalgia porn. It was just that the characters and emotions were first, but if you zoomed in on everything, it was completely accurate.”
In the film, Stevie falls in with a skate crew that hangs out at Motor Avenue Skateshop, reads Big Brother, listens to The Misfits and Souls of Mischief, and films each other with a Hi-8 camera they bring everywhere. “The Menace Skate Team was the biggest aesthetic influence, and Shorty’s, and they’re both heavily featured in the film,” Hill explained. “The one thing we initially couldn’t clear was the Beavis and Butt-Head t-shirt he wears into the skate shop the first time he goes, because he thinks that is the most cool, adult, punk shirt. So I emailed Mike Judge and wrote him a letter and he was kind enough to help us out. But the worst thing you can be accused of for me is doing things just to be cool, so it all has to come from the emotions.”
These onscreen details dovetail into Hill’s aesthetic choices as director, where he prioritized movement, and later, editorial fluidity, to create a perfect, hermetically-sealed world within the film. Hill shot the film in a 1.33:1 format - “Academy ratio” - not as an affectation but to showcase his characters’ physicality. “I was less interested in people’s faces than how young people are with their body language,” he said. “In a square, you get to see how somebody behaves with their entire body. Also, a character [named] Fourth Grade is shooting in Hi8 the entire time we were actually shooting each scene, and it was very jarring to go from the standard ratio to Hi8, but the 4:3 cut like butter between the Hi8.”
And then there’s the soundtrack - a murderer’s row of iconic ‘90s artists whose songs Hill says he secured by writing them personal letters. “We cleared every song including one from Nirvana Unplugged, which had never been used in a film. I think when you write heartfelt letters and you make a film from your heart, people can see you’re coming from the right place,” he explained. “Whether it was Morrissey or Nirvana or Tribe, people just showed up in a really beautiful way.”
“Each scene was written to the song that’s in the film, where it’s used in the film, so we were insanely fortunate and got every song that I wanted with very little music budget,” Hill continued. “Music is an incredibly important part of the film, and speaking for myself, when you’re directing, you selfishly want to show how you emotionally hear a song through the visuals that help express that.”
The end result is a film that feels like a living, breathing thing - a moving portrait of this kid’s life as he transitions into adolescence, sometimes clumsily, but always affectionately. Hill admits that he wanted to depict these worlds in a more accurate, if not always flattering way, but maybe that’s because so much of it came directly from his own teenage experiences. “A big reason for making this film for me was that along with skateboarding, hip-hop is usually butchered in film,” he observed. “To me, hip-hop is the emotional backbone of my childhood, so I wanted to make a truly elegant film that celebrated how what Tribe [Called Quest] is to me is what The Beatles were to my parents.”
“So we always knew that the mix of hip-hop, punk and Philip Glass, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, would sort of frame this in a way where if you could go from Big L to Philip Glass or the Misfits to a score from Oscar-winning composers, that kind of thing frames it in a way I don’t think it’s even been framed before. But it’s all alchemy - making a film is alchemy. It’s all just tinkering with things until you find this balance that you’re happy with.”