Mid90s - Review

Jonah Hill’s debut is a gritty, hilarious, passionately made labor of love.

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Writing and directing a film is enough to make any budding director crack. Writing one that embodies a specific decade and is semi-autobiographical can be artistic suicide. But in a positive turn of events, Jonah Hill is more than up to the challenge, and succeeds at so much it’s easy to miss what he’s lacking. Between pitch-perfect performances, a great eye for aesthetics, and a mostly spot on soundtrack, Mid90s is a clear labor of love that is better for it.

Made on a shoestring budget, Mid90s is full of creative workarounds. For one, casting no-name lead actors, sans Lucas Hedges and Katherine Waterston. We’re given plenty of time to get to know Stevie, played by the consistently dynamic Sunny Suljic, and when he meets the group of skater kids that become his friends there is a palpable sense of fear and awe. Suljic plays Stevie quiet, which makes him easier to relate to than recent young characters like Kayla Day. The film places you in his shoes, but it’s hardly the coming of age story that Eighth Grade was; Mid90s is all about the experience. Jonah Hill’s limitless devotion to the era he grew up in is recreated with a shocking level of realism. Every street corner, skate deck, and foods in the fridge are period accurate, and more than simple fills. The CDs on Stevie’s brother’s shelf are handpicked by Hill, and the soundtrack collects his favorite alternative and rap cuts from the time. The end credits scene uses an extreme fisheye lense to summarize the exploits of the characters; it’s the most convincing moment of the film, and making it the last thing you see was a perfect move. Instead of using visual tricks or recreating iconic 90s film moments, the montage feels like kids messing around with a cheap camera, or exactly what it should be.  

This ending also poses the only real detractor of Mid90s: it messes with the tone. After the climactic car crash that slows the film to a crawl, I was on the edge of my seat in fear. So many questions, so much drama, and plenty of cathartic reconciliations later and the tension of the crash is still palpable. So when the film ends with a cheery retrospective and is suddenly over, I was left with the wind (slightly) knocked out of me. It could have used a trip back to the skate shop to watch the video after Stevie recovered, or decided to leave the tension of the crash unresolved, but it lands somewhere in the middle, between and a laugh and a worry.

The rest of Mid90s is a lesson in personal filmmaking. I realize that’s ironic, but it seriously feels like a film no one else could have made, and never will again. Every scene is set up, labored over and rehearsed in the way that best communicates what Jonah has to say, which is ultimately that being a kid sucks. It’s unfair, restraining, and seemingly endless. Watching it unfold tells a different story, though, in which we can see what it’s like to learn what the world has to offer, again. Everyone has their own story of the first time they heard a bad word or someone at a party explained sex, and Mid90s feels like its own hour and twenty minute journey through that process. It has its moments of intense hilarity, mostly through the gang of misfits Stevie aligns with, but it’s also profoundly sad and difficult to watch as Stevie makes all the wrong choices so many of us have made. It would be easy to jump to judgement, but Mid90s is a film that relishes those embarrassing moments and turns them into something worth celebrating.