The 1990s is probably the last decade that’s truly distinct and immediately identifiable by the music, the fashion and pop culture. Mid90s, the incredibly assured directorial debut from Jonah Hill, is a slice of life drama that effortlessly transports its audience back to that era, and the result is one of the most poignant, bittersweet coming of age films of the last 20 years.
The plot follows Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a 13-year-old who has to contend with abusive brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) and his largely absent, passive single-mother (Katherine Waterston). Stevie comes to befriend a gang of skateboarders, who accept him and help him come out of his shell, while also teaching him some tough lessons and setting him down a dangerous path.
Hill has a surprisingly distinct directing style that’s technically innovative but subtle in its execution, echoing indie directors such as Richard Linklater, Larry Clark and Harmony Korine (who has a brief cameo here). There is a lot of understated editing and camerawork that is stylish but never draws attention to itself. Hill uses the camera here to show not tell, and proves to be an effective storyteller. Filming in 4:3 is a really nice touch, immediately setting the scene without any sort of hacky exposition. I also can’t recall a recent film where the sound design played such an integral role. It’s used effectively, cutting out in some places, blaring louder in others, to dazzling, disorienting effect.
In a similar way to Stand By Me and American Graffiti, the soundtrack does most of the heavy lifting. From The Mamas and Papas to Wu Tang Klan, it’s one of the most eclectic, evocative ones of recent years and provokes an undeniably emotional response. The film is also oddly reminiscent of Almost Famous, and Waterston somewhat channels a slightly more laid-back version of Frances McDormand’s character from that film.
Hill manages to coax excellent performances from a cast of relative unknowns. Suljic is incredibly emotive as Stevie, conveying a lot with not much dialogue; his glee when he’s trying to keep up with the more seasoned skateboarders is tangible, and his subsequent acting out is quietly devastating. Lucas Hedges (who seems to have cornered the market in moody teenagers) makes his character relatable, if not completely sympathetic.
There is vivid characterisation across the board in Mid90s, and each character is shown to be fully dimensional. The party-going, funny skateboarder is shown to be a lot of fun, but also dangerously impulsive and bitter. The older brother is a horrible bully, but also someone who isn’t undeserving of our pity. These character beats inform the plot and feel entirely plausible and organic within the story, and really nicely executed. Hill also has a great ear for natural dialogue; the family arguments and the dynamics of the central group of friends are all too recognisable, and a lot of the conversations feel really true to life.
The film isn’t without it’s issues. The script is subtle for the most part, but this makes the few on-the-nose moments stick out like a sore thumb, and Waterston’s character remains a little underdeveloped, despite her giving a really touching performance. There’s also a particularly jarring sex scene which feels uncomfortable and excessive, and the ending is very abrupt, without much of a resolution, although that last scene is really heartwarming.