mid90s (2018)

19 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Teenagers can be very obnoxious. (That shouldn’t be news to anybody—we were teens ourselves; we know how we behaved.) With a group of teens, that adds extra layers to the obnoxiousness. We’d say things to our friends that we couldn’t tell anyone else, though honestly, it was usually to try and keep up with our peers who had risqué stories that may or may not be true. (When you had to ask about certain things involving sex, you showed your lack of experience, thus lowering your ranking in the group.) A lot of us have been there, and hopefully, most of us have grown up a lot since then.

Jonah Hill remembers it. But he also remembers why the teenage group was there to begin with: not to one-up each other with debauchery and offensiveness, but to be there for one another when no one else will. He remembers the crudeness of being a teenage boy amongst other teenage boys, but he also remembers the friendship and loyalty that was always underneath the surface of the group. He grew up as a teen in the mid-1990s, but this sort of behavior is present with teenagers in every era. Therefore, it doesn’t matter that his directing debut, the aptly-named “mid90s,” was set in its time because it was made today and it’s about us, whether it’s for looking back on our teenage years (to see if we behaved similarly to the young characters or if we had a teenage life more relaxed and stable than what’s presented here) or even to see how similar today’s teens are compared to those from the mid-90s (technology obviously not being a factor in this argument).

Set in summer-1996 Los Angeles, “mid90s” is the story of a short, skinny, good-natured 13-year-old boy named Stevie (Sunny Suljic), whose home life isn’t very welcoming. His single young mother (Katherine Waterston) is nice and tries to care for him, but she’s somewhat irresponsible and a little too sharing about her romantic interests. Stevie looks up to his 18-year-old older brother Ian (and often sneaks into his bedroom to catch glimpses of pop culture to keep up with what’s “cool”), but Ian (Lucas Hedges) is a bully who pushes around and abuses his little brother every chance he gets. The kid is shy and socially awkward, but when he spots a group of loudmouthed, racially diverse skateboarding teens at the local skate shop, he can’t help but attempt to fit in with them. He buys Ian’s skateboard (for some of Stevie’s Nintendo games, of course—Stevie would never give up his Discman!) and spends more time around the hangout where he eventually gets noticed and (yay!) Is asked to fetch a jug of water for the skateboarders! Now he’s in with this ragtag team of “cool kids”—unofficial ringleader & skilled skater Ray (Na-kel Smith); Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), dim-witted aspiring filmmaker; F***S*** (Olan Prenatt), the jokester nicknamed for his excited exclamations; and Ruben (Gio Galicia), the younger, more stern one of the group who shows Stevie the ropes. (It’s clear to us that Ruben is the least popular of the group because of his attitude and that he sees himself as someone for Stevie to look up to. Pretty pathetic.) Stevie earns the nickname “Sunburn” (after taking part in one of the group’s most hilarious discussions about whether or not dark-skinned people can get sunburned) and he becomes an amusing asset to the group due to his naïveté and willingness to impress everyone.

It’s the summer that changes everything for this young man, as he smokes his first cigarette, drinks his first beer, barely survives an attempt to pull off a dangerous skateboarding stunt, tries drugs given to him by his friends, has his first sexual encounter with an older girl, and violently stands up to his bully of a brother. In less than 85 minutes, writer/director Jonah Hill is able to fit in as many rites of passage for a boy becoming a man in the ‘90s youth culture, and he doesn’t criticize as much as he observes. (Hill himself was 13 in 1996, so I wonder how much of this material is autobiographical.) But more importantly, he’s also able to fit in as much context for his likable young lead’s development as needed, even as unpleasant as presenting him as masochistic (he hits himself when he’s alone and, after a brutal fight with Ian, nearly asphyxiates himself with a Super Nintendo controller cable). The kid needs help, and whether his friends are the positive outlet for it or not, it’s at least something he can use for now. (Of course, his mother doesn’t see it that way—her son shows up at home intoxicated, she’s there to confront the boys right there in the skate shop despite her son’s protests.)

These mid-90s skater boys talk the way real-life mid-90s skater boys talked. (Often when these kids talked, I was reminded of Larry Clark’s 1995 slice-of-life “Kids.”) They’re crude, vulgar, homophobic, chauvinistic, idiotic, and more. But Hill never apologizes for it.* He just shows it how it was/is (no doubt many of these “deep discussions” are still held by modern teenage boys). And it makes the quieter moments amongst a couple of the kids all the more meaningful and welcome. An example: today, it’s normal for teens to show that they care for one another, but back in the mid-90s, it wasn’t “cool” to care unless you were already “cool” to begin with. Ray is certainly the “cool” one of the group, but he also has a heart, which he shows in a scene in which he consoles Stevie by sharing that the other boys have worse home lives than him (one’s family is poor, one’s mom is a drug addict, one is delving deeper into alcohol and drugs, and Ray lost his younger brother in an accident). Ray and Stevie are alone in this scene, because it’s highly doubtful the others wish for their personal lives to be shared with this kid, but I think it’s fair to assume that if he showed this side of himself otherwise, nobody would mind.

“mid90s” is very well-written and well-directed, with Hill and his crew putting as much detail into the time period as possible without forcing anything. And it’s very well-acted, with everyone from the kids (especially Suljic, Smith, and Hedges) to Katherine Waterston (playing the only key adult in the film) delivering very strong work. And there are little moments here and there that add very little and very much at the same time (Stevie gives his brother a CD he thinks he’ll like, but the brother ignores it; Stevie tries the same skateboard trick over and over again in his driveway; the kids make friendly conversation with a homeless man; among others). What I didn’t like about “mid90s” was the ending. I’m all for ambiguous conclusions, but I don’t think there was a conclusion to be found at all. Without giving it away, something happens to these kids, and we’re given an epilogue in which we’re not sure what to think (or think about). (And I don’t think a particular character reacted accordingly to the incident either.) At the end of “mid90s,” I don’t feel like much was accomplished. But thankfully, that’s not what I’m going to remember for time to come, when I’m thinking of “mid90s.” I’m going to remember the memorable characters, the effective time capsule, and my own teenage memories.

*According to IMDb Trivia, Hill thought the dialogue amongst the boys would get both him and the film in trouble, and so he considered shooting a scene in which the kids debate over whether they should be talking like that. Producer Scott Rudin talked him out of it, asking Hill, “Would you guys have had this conversation back then?”

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