Written & Directed by Jonah Hill
Stevie is a thirteen-year-old living in Los Angeles in the titular mid-1990s. He’s being raised by a single mother and has an older brother who beats Stevie mercilessly if he enters his bedroom. By chance one day, Stevie comes across a skate shop and is immediately entranced by the nature of the young men outside, their freedom and joy. After stealing money from his mom to buy a board, Stevie works his way into the ranks of these skaters and quickly becomes absorbed by their lifestyle. He begins to adopt their mannerisms and anti-social behaviors while watching conflicts emerge among his new friends.
mid90s is the writer-directorial debut of actor Jonah Hill and went into the movie with some slight trepidation. Anytime an actor steps into the role of helming a film it can go wrong pretty quickly. I have not been a fan of Hill’s pall James Franco’s films. However, Hill has worked with some fantastic directors in his career: Scorsese, Cary Fukunaga, and Judd Apatow to name a few. Thankfully it seems that Hill paid close attention to the directors he has worked with as well as taking influences from the skate video directors of his youth. mid90s has a fantastic look and powerfully evokes the feeling of the latter half of that decade.
In Superbad, Jonah Hill and Michael Cera play the central figures in a story that mocks male insecurity. Here, Hill revisits those ideas but in the form of something more somber, heartbreaking. I wouldn’t say mid90s goes to the depths that it should on this topic. There is always a documentary-like distance from Stevie and a lack of insight. There are some subtle moments and touches, a crescendo between Stevie and his older brother that delivers a tragic explosion of emotion from the elder boy. We get a silent epilogue that hints at some understanding and development of their relationship, but it’s unsure what that is.
Despite all of its style and ideas, no plot ever comes to fruition to the movie. I believe the filmmakers intended that because it makes the film a character study, slice of life picture. We are witnessing a pivotal moment in what will shape Stevie’s life for years to come, but we do not get to see how any of this plays out. If this had been something akin to The Sandlot, we would have had a denouement scored with loud orchestral music and a voiceover from adult Stevie telling us about what happened to each of his friends. Not doing this was a smart move because it leaves the futures of the skaters up in the air. Some of them want to go pro and are making headway. Others are dropping out of school, raised by privileged parents, and squandering the opportunities they have.
This is a moderately confident start to Jonah Hill’s career as a filmmaker. It is promising and shows someone who is taking baby steps. He didn’t go for an overly ambitious first feature, telling an intimate, quiet story. He already has one strength as a director coming through, and that’s working with his actors. Hill can get authentic and organic performances out of his cast. I’ll be looking forward to seeing what he does next and what growth we’ll see from this film to the next.